Can you train your brain?

I’m not sure how I came across the Lumosity website a few days ago. However it was, I was intrigued by the idea of playing games that would somehow train my brain to help me remember things better or think faster or have better spatial sense. The site claims there is solid science behind their brain-training program, and from the little I read it sounded plausible.

And there was nothing to lose by signing up for a free trial. So far I’ve done two of the three free training sessions, and the games have been fun. Challenging enough to feel as though I might be doing something of benefit for my brain, but not so hard that I can’t feel good about my score. Of course, I’m sure the games are designed for exactly that reaction, so that people will be willing to pay for a subscription to unlock of the website’s features.

Today I went as far as checking to see how much the subscription cost. Just out of curiosity. The yearly plan is $6.70 a month (paid up front), which doesn’t sound too bad. It’s about the price of a movie ticket, or eating out for lunch, something that many people would feel they could afford once a month. I rarely eat out, but I probably do pick up a ready-made lunch (available onsite where I work from a different vendor each day of the week) around once a month.

Of course, it’s the thought that there is a measurable mental benefit that makes the idea more appealing. Otherwise, it would be $6.70 a month just to play some online games, and there are a lot of online games I can play for free. Not to mention lots of offline games, such as crossword puzzles, card games, Sudoku, and so forth. So I decided to see what I could find out about Lumosity from other sources.

I wasn’t too surprised to read that the science behind Lumosity’s claims is pseudo-science. It sounds like science, but it doesn’t stand up to true scientific testing. That’s not to say that there is no benefit to playing their games. A testimonial such as “Since starting my training with Lumosity, I’ve felt an energy boost and improved cognitive functioning” is probably an accurate description of one person’s experience. I imagine a lot depends on what someone was doing – and not doing – prior to starting with Lumosity.

I certain get some kind of boost from doing my crossword puzzles and playing Freecell. I doubt it gives me any more energy, but I certainly feel more positive when I am solving puzzles and winning games, and a positive feeling tends to translate into a feeling of more energy. Of course, I also get a positive feeling from getting the dishes all washed and the laundry caught up, but they’re not as fun to do.

Yesterday I was helping my son with some homework that was about being skeptical. The previous week’s lesson had been about having an open mind to new ideas, and this one balanced that with the reminder that new ideas may have little basis in fact. In hindsight, we wonder how people could have been so slow to accept the germ theory of disease, or how so many could have been taken in by quack medicine. But when ideas are new, how do you know whether an open mind or skepticism is the more appropriate response?

My husband is currently reading a book on Reflexology. Like much of alternative medicine, I suspect that it has some basis in fact but tries to claim benefits that go far beyond the truth. I have gone, on numerous occasions, to a chiropractor when I had a bad stiff neck that wasn’t getting better on its own (or that hurt so bad I couldn’t wait for it to get better on its own), and there’s no question that the treatment helped. But I certainly would not go to a chiropractor, as my mother did, for my primary medical care.

I’m pretty that some kind of brain training exists that really does improve one’s ability to remember things, or to think in spatial terms.  I don’t know whether the games at help in those areas, or in others that they claim to benefit. Even the scientific tests that showed that brain training games failed to show the improvements claimed, do not prove that brain training is a failed idea, just that we haven’t yet found a way to measure its benefits, if indeed it has them.

For now, I’ll stick to my free games, my puzzles, and my books. And of course my blog.


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