Early thoughts on brain training apps

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I have been very intrigued recently by emerging brain training apps (Lumosity, Elevate etc.) that promises to increase your cognitive skills based on proven research. These apps allegedly boost your brain capacity in a digital environment almost like Keanu in the Matrix (“I know Kung Fu”). But it is important to mention that all these games are not supported by any solid research – so far. While I personally think the world of brain training apps is compelling, and may in future forms prove to be useful, I found two problems at this stage:

1) First and most importantly these apps are NOT based on any conclusive research, contrary to what the apps will have you believe in advertising. The metrics they use are basically nonsensical numbers measuring nothing but your increasing ability in each particular game. It might make you feel better to know you just became 10 points smarter, but the measures and scientific connotation is not only false advertising but quite paradoxically insults the intelligence of the person playing.

2) The apps are quite expensive in comparison to what you generally pay for apps and normal games (11.95$ for a monthly subscription to Lumosity!). Overall the price range seems to suggest that this is more than just a game app, i.e. an actual scientifically sound method for increasing brain capacity. If this was marketed as “just a game” the price tag might be harder to justify and in the end make the games cheaper. Most apps have free versions, but if you like to compare your results to others and play all the games available you pay a monthly fee.

A recent public statement from 70 actual(!) scientist based in Harvard takes a strong stand against the claims of these computer based brain apps: “[…] at this point it is not correct to conclude that training-induced changes go significantly beyond the learned skills, and that they affect broad abilities with real-world relevance, or that they generally promote “brain health”.” Instead they suggest you engage in proven methods to increase so-called mental health, and, I am sorry to say, most of these methods are based on long-term commitment towards obtaining actual skills or doing physical exercises daily. I particularly like their economic incentive, which makes this a concrete choice about how to best spend your time and money:

“Before investing time and money on brain games, consider what economists call opportunity costs: If an hour spent doing solo software drills is an hour not spent hiking, learning Italian, making a new recipe, or playing with your grandchildren, it may not be worth it. But if it replaces time spent in a sedentary state, like watching television, the choice may make more sense for you.”

This is the real choice you should consider in the end. Who knows, these games may improve some cognitive skills that can be applied elsewhere, but they will probably just make you better at the particular game you are playing. So maybe it makes more sense for you to spend your time learning an instrument, language etc. This activity is surely useful and will probably have much greater influence on your general cognitive skills. Of course learning an instrument is difficult and time consuming, but that is also what makes the commitment impressive in the end.

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Screenshot of advertisement from elevateapp.com.

When I was in primary school I remember we used to do a DOS based calculator game on the PC that I believe has improved my math skills. However, it was less of a game really and more about just doing math on a computer. In the end that seems to be the key to improving brain capacity and any skill you desire. If you want to be good at math, then simply do a lot of it. Want to improve your focus and reading skills? You should probably start reading more.

There is something to be said about acquiring skills and improving brain capabilities at a young age though, and it may simply be more difficult to acquire new skills when you get older. That should not discourage you to learn new things, but neither should you run to the app store to purchase miracle cures that magically boost or unlock secret neurological potentials that have just lied dormant for all these years. Contrary to what many pop culture fictions will have you believe, we do not have a secret storage of 90% unused brain power that can magically be unlocked. We just do not use 100% all the time but rather around 10% of various areas in various situations (ref).

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Many movies like Lucy explores the popular myth that we only use 10% brainpower and the 90% can somehow be unlocked and give us superhuman abilities.

But hey if you want to play games on your computer or Ipad, that is perfectly fine. Anything that requires active mental processes is probably better than just sitting in front of the TV – zombie-style. IN FACT if you want to play games, maybe you will be better off playing other games like Portal 2 since a recent study suggest that “Portal 2 kicks Lumosity’s ass” when it comes to improving cognitive skills.

In short playing games on computer, Ipad or smartphone etc. may have a positive effect on your cognitive skills though more research is needed to understand how and when. Just be aware that there is so far no proof that pricey apps like Lumosity or Elevate are any better than playing normal computer games. So why not play something that is fun? You might actually be better off in the end. And should you want to learn Kung Fu like Keanu did in the Matrix you still need to invest a long time practicing actual Kung Fu.

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