Tuesday, 5 February 2013

Lumosity - the ultimate in brain reification?

So-called "Brain training" has been a consistent self-help theme ever since Cognitive Science and Neuroscience began to be popularised in the mid-60s, when the concept of left/right brain hemispheres was pounced upon and enthusiastically applied to many different fields of endeavour.  This of course had the effect of compounding the reification of the brain, crystalising the mind/body dualism as well as notions that you are either artistic or mathematical, dexterous or inventive etc etc.  

I remember my own grandfather (an amateur artist and full-time beret-wearer) devouring the 1979 manual "Drawing from the Right Side of Your Brain" and for the remainder of his retirement years was locked in a mortal struggle to overpower his left hemisphere and become a great artist.  Unfortunately nobody told him that this was a doomed excercise, as Brian D.Cohen points out in the Huffington Post "if you bother to read a how-to book, you're left-brained".  

So I was interested to stumble across Lumosity the hugely popular "brain-training" program (they call it "cognitive enhancement") which claims to "take advantage of the brain’s innate neuroplasticity to help shape it into a more effective, powerful organ''.. 

Available online and as a mobile app, the service now has 35m registered users and is adding another 100,000 users a day. Pretty phenomenal when you consider the cognitive behaviour data that is being gathered - I imagine that Facebook are watching with interest.

"Lumosity has the largest database of human cognition ever assembled. Researchers are actively exploring this database to understand the determinants of cognitive performance and cognitive enhancement — all in an effort to make the world a smarter place."

I'm not quite sure about "making the world a smarter place" claim, and feel that the use of the term "cognitive enhancement" should also be treated with some scepticism, as until now it referred to the (possibly dubious) field of Nootropics or "mind nutrition" drugs.  Although I acknowledge there are some potentially useful therapeutic applications for Luminosity such as for patients with alzheimers* or traumatic brain injuries.  

For the rest of us, I question whether consciously "training" your brain is really possible, and besides aren't we already vastly over-stimulated and over-informed?  Indeed, isn't it when we are are actively moving  that we often have our best, most creative ideas - e.g. while cycling or jogging.  Which returns me to my original point, should we be thinking about the "brain" as an isolated entity? Can we legitimately extract the "mind" from the "body"?

So as I consider enrolling my brain for a costly cognitive enhancement program I ponder whether I might just turn off the computer and take my body for a stroll instead..

*Although the benefits to Alzheimer's patients are not undisputed.


  1. Hi Eileen, interesting topic! Thomas Redick and colleagues may argue that they have good reason to tell you to 'just turn off the computer' because in their 2012 study they actually found no improvements in cognition or intelligence after working memory training using a randomized, placebo-controlled design. Although the researchers agree that future research is needed to identify the various variables that may actually increase intellectual benefits of brain training, research findings like this, really do make us reevaluate such "brain training" programs and how regular participation in such (i.e. Lumosity) may in fact be a 'doomed exercise' after all.

    Here is the link to their study http://www.psychology.gatech.edu/renglelab/publications/2012/RedicketalJEPG.pdf

  2. I'm naturally inclined to think that Luminosity and other similar programs are the cognitive equivalent of late-night fitness infomercials: their theoretically revolutionary hypothetical principles hold on paper, but "results may vary" in practice. At the same time, though, phenomena including neuroplasticity and the expansion/ redefinition of neural pathways have been experimentally observed and empirically documented (ex. stroke rehabilitation therapy).

    Thus while it is certainly possible to reshape the brain into a more effective organ, I am not convinced that programs like Luminosity actually affect such changes. However even if they did, that is still a far cry from making "the world a smarter place."

  3. Some wise words about the snake oil of cognitive enhancement, or brain training, are provided in this post: http://idiolect.org.uk/notes/?p=970.

  4. Interesting link Fred, thank you for sharing. For those interested, here are some more resources on Neuroethics and cognitive enhancement:


    And here is paper by neurologist Anjan Chatterjee about 'Cosmetic Neurology': neuroethics.stanford.edu/documents/Chatterjee.pdf

  5. Travis and Fred - totally agree with the snake-oil verdict. Rebekah - thanks for the links - "cosmetic neurology" sounds dangerously legitimate doesn't it!

  6. To quote from Anjan Chatterjee; "Neurologists and other clinicians are likely to encounter patient-consumers who view physicians as gatekeepers in their own pursuit of happiness.... One plausible scenario is that neurologists will become quality of life consultants. Following the model of financial consultants, we could offer a menu of options, with the likely outcomes and the incumbent risks stated in generalities." He's being deliberately controversial of course, but I hope this is generating is some serious debate as we certainly can't trust pharma-business to have our best interests at heart.