from the world's big
The Highly Dubious Science Behind the Brain-Training Craze
The cognitive equivalent of snacking on Twinkies dipped in whey protein to prepare for a triathalon.
Two months ago, Lumosity, the “brain-training company” whose ads you’ve probably seen on the web or heard on the radio or TV, was forced to pay $2 million as part of a settlement with the Federal Trade Commission (FTC), which had accused the company of baselessly touting the benefits of its product. The judgment against Lumosity in January was actually much bigger—$50 million—but the sum was reduced because the company could not afford to pay that much. Subscribers who faithfully played its memory and concentration games and were shelling out $14.95/month (or $299.95 for “lifetime” access) got some relief, and Lumosity was forced to notify auto-renewing members of the settlement and make it easier for them to cancel.
What was so problematic about the way Lumosity was pitching its services? The company “preyed on consumers’ fears about age-related cognitive decline,” the FTC charged, “suggesting their games could stave off memory loss, dementia, and even Alzheimer’s disease.” Just one problem: “Lumosity simply did not have the science to back up its ads.”
Consider the cognitive goodies Lumosity was promising in this ad, for example:
And take in the apparently non-tongue-in-cheek suggestion in this ad that sorting through online flashcards just might turn you into an NBA superstar:
This Be Like Lebron pitch is a dead-serious version of the much lighter and more affectionate Gatorade ad featuring Michael Jordan (“Be Like Mike”) from 1992:
And for a dose of syrupy deception, listen closely to the bubbly actor playing a customer called ‘Emily” in this TV spot:
Notice Emily’s starry-eyed swoon that Lumosity is “based on neuro-science” and the narrator’s explanation that the website employs the mysterious-sounding “science of neuroplasticity” to help subscribers “build a better brain.” Don’t worry, there’s nothing Frankenstein-y going on, the spot reassures us brightly. The website will rewire your noggin “in a way that just feels like games.” Yes, games! Fun stuff! No sweat! It’s the cognitive equivalent of snacking on Twinkies dipped in whey protein to prepare for a triathalon.
There’s nothing wrong with having fun on the Internet, and we can safely stipulate that Lumosity’s challenging games are more valuable than, say, Candy Crush or Cow Evolution, two mindless pastimes that straphangers eat up during their morning commutes. But the brain-training craze that has gripped web users over the past few years should give us pause. It’s disturbing how easily people can be taken in with obviously exaggerated claims about how devoting themselves to a series of games can improve intellectual functioning. The sad irony is that the people who spend good money on these programs could in fact use something of a mental tune-up—but the lessons of rational thinking they need are nowhere to be found in the curriculum.
Steven V. Mazie is Professor of Political Studies at Bard High School Early College-Manhattan and Supreme Court correspondent for The Economist. He holds an A.B. in Government from Harvard College and a Ph.D. in Political Science from the University of Michigan. He is author, most recently, of American Justice 2015: The Dramatic Tenth Term of the Roberts Court.
Image credit: Shutterstock.com
Follow Steven Mazie on Twitter: @stevenmazie
Join us at 2 pm ET tomorrow!
Construction of the $500 billion dollar tech city-state of the future is moving ahead.
- The futuristic megacity Neom is being built in Saudi Arabia.
- The city will be fully automated, leading in health, education and quality of life.
- It will feature an artificial moon, cloud seeding, robotic gladiators and flying taxis.
The Red Sea area where Neom will be built:
Saudi Arabia Plans Futuristic City, "Neom" (Full Promotional Video)<span style="display:block;position:relative;padding-top:56.25%;" class="rm-shortcode" data-rm-shortcode-id="c646d528d230c1bf66c75422bc4ccf6f"><iframe type="lazy-iframe" data-runner-src="https://www.youtube.com/embed/N53DzL3_BHA?rel=0" width="100%" height="auto" frameborder="0" scrolling="no" style="position:absolute;top:0;left:0;width:100%;height:100%;"></iframe></span>
Are we genetically inclined for superstition or just fearful of the truth?
- From secret societies to faked moon landings, one thing that humanity seems to have an endless supply of is conspiracy theories. In this compilation, physicist Michio Kaku, science communicator Bill Nye, psychologist Sarah Rose Cavanagh, skeptic Michael Shermer, and actor and playwright John Cameron Mitchell consider the nature of truth and why some groups believe the things they do.
- "I think there's a gene for superstition, a gene for hearsay, a gene for magic, a gene for magical thinking," argues Kaku. The theoretical physicist says that science goes against "natural thinking," and that the superstition gene persists because, one out of ten times, it actually worked and saved us.
- Other theories shared include the idea of cognitive dissonance, the dangerous power of fear to inhibit critical thinking, and Hollywood's romanticization of conspiracies. Because conspiracy theories are so diverse and multifaceted, combating them has not been an easy task for science.
A growing body of research suggests COVID-19 can cause serious neurological problems.
- The new study seeks to track the health of 50,000 people who have tested positive for COVID-19.
- The study aims to explore whether the disease causes cognitive impairment and other conditions.
- Recent research suggests that COVID-19 can, directly or indirectly, cause brain dysfunction, strokes, nerve damage and other neurological problems.
Brain images of a patient with acute demyelinating encephalomyelitis.
COVID-19 and the brain<p>A growing body of research reveals alarming neurological complications among COVID-19 patients. On Wednesday, for example, researchers from University College London published a <a href="https://academic.oup.com/brain/article/doi/10.1093/brain/awaa240/5868408" target="_blank">study</a> in the journal Brain that describes how some patients have suffered temporary brain dysfunction, strokes, nerve damage, and other neurological problems concurrent with COVID-19.</p><p>Some patients suffered brain inflammation as a result of a rare disease called acute disseminated encephalomyelitis, which can cause numbness, seizures, and confusion. One patient in the study even hallucinated monkeys and lions in her home.</p>
Photo by Mario Tama/Getty Images<p>A separate study published in the <a href="https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC7198407/" target="_blank">Journal of Clinical Neuroscience</a> notes that some COVID-19 patients have also suffered neurological complications like impaired consciousness and acute cerebrovascular disease. The study notes that past viruses like MERS and SARS also seemed to cause neurological problems.</p><p>A troubling finding among this growing body of research is that some patients seem to suffer neurological damage even when respiratory symptoms aren't obvious. Additionally, scientists aren't sure whether damage from the disease will be permanent.</p><p style="margin-left: 20px;">"Given that the disease has only been around for a matter of months, we might not yet know what long-term damage COVID-19 can cause," Dr. Ross Paterson, joint first author of the University College London study, said in a <a href="https://www.eurekalert.org/pub_releases/2020-07/ucl-iid070620.php" target="_blank">press release</a>. "Doctors needs to be aware of possible neurological effects, as early diagnosis can improve patient outcomes."</p><p>If you've been diagnosed with COVID-19 and want to enroll in the study, visit <a href="https://www.cambridgebrainsciences.com/studies/covid-brain-study" target="_blank">cambridgebrainsciences.com/studies/covid-brain-study</a>.</p>
Coronavirus layoffs are a glimpse into our automated future. We need to build better education opportunities now so Americans can find work in the economy of tomorrow.