You've probably heard of Lumosity, the app that claims to improve memory and attention through "brain games." The ads leave you slightly worried your mind is degenerating as you ponder, "Hmm, maybe I should do something about that…" at least for the duration of the commercial. "Plus, fixing my brain looks so easy, almost fun! The pretty people are happier now! And it's created by neuroscientists! They're fancy and edumacated so it must work!"
Alright, you can guess where I'm going with this. While the intentions behind Lumosity are laudable, there are a couple of slight issues:
1. Easy Isn't The Way
Things that are too easy (swiping left or right a la Candy Crush) do nothing to improve cognition. By this logic, a game of "Whack-A-Mole" will have you reading the cards in Vegas. Your brain learns best when challenged. Studies show that acetylcholine, a chemical essential for learning, was higher in individuals that encountered harder problems.(1) Those individuals may have been rats, but let's not think too highly of ourselves.
2. Personalized For The Masses
While Lumosity claims to be a "personal trainer for your brain," there's nothing personal about it. Yes, each game is "designed to challenge a specific cognitive skill," but unless that particular area matches your exact weakness (it won't), you and the 70 million other users are probably better off going for a walk.
In fact, Lumosity's commercials were so misleading that they are being forced to refund two million dollars of subscription costs to customers. The good news?
Brain Games That Actually Help You Do Exist
The technology for personalized, challenging games is out there. Let's take a gander into the neuroplastic future: a shiny world where both kids and adults will take brain assessments and have individualized programs to address learning disabilities or weak connections.
But I'm perfect…
Look, we all have our weak spots. (Personally, I can learn Arabic faster than I can solve 2+2.) Unless you're licking stamps from 9-5, chances are your job requires more than one brain function. Whether you're a CEO or M-O-M, us humans tend to face problems by hammering through them; by spending extra hours behind the desk, hiring a tutor, or outsourcing them. What if you could fix the underlying issue -poor connections- instead? By "strengthening weak links in the chain," neuroplastic techniques have the potential to both heal and optimize.(2)
FastForWord To The Future
There's a really cool guy named Michael Merzenich. He's most famous for helping to design the cochlear implant, allowing the deaf to hear, which is why he's awesome. Now he's using his neuroplastic savviness to help learning-disabled students through a game called "FastForWord." The game has already helped hundreds of thousands. But what's truly amazing "is how quickly the change occurs. In some cases people who have had a lifetime of cognitive difficulties get better after only thirty to sixty hours of treatment."
Merzenich targets certain processing areas, called "brain maps." When those areas are forced to do more work (shout out to Lumosity), millions of nerve cell connections are improvedso "we learn and perceive with greater precision, speed, and retention."
The main focus of FastForWord seems to be healing disabilities but imagine the future implications. Trained neurons "develop 25% more branches and increase their size, the number of connections per a neuron, and their blood supply,"(3) a fact that has led Merzenich to apply FastForWord's technology to BrainHQ, an app-based brain game with Lumosity-like claims. Whether it's currently personalized or challenging enough to create neuroplastic growth is to be determined. Either way, I'd bet that Merzenich will be the one to change the way we play the game, and soon.
Questions? Comments? Email me: Cat@CatCastellanos.com
(1,2,3) Doidge, Norman, The Brain That Changes Itself: Stories of Personal Triumph from the Frontiers of Brain Science, James H. Silberman Books, 2007.