Flexing the Brain: A Q&A with Michael Scanlon

Millions of people log on to Lumosity daily to flex their brain muscles--and hopefully improve memory, attention and general cognitive performance in the process.  But this brain training site has recently garnered attention for a large-scale survey which found that better brain performance was linked to 7 hours of sleep per night,  aerobic activity 2-3 times per week and a daily cocktail.  While the overall efficacy of brain training remains hotly debated, Michael Scanlon, co-founder and Chief Scientific Officer of Lumos Labs (creator of Lumosity), discusses the findings from the study, what surprised him most and what we can take away from correlational data. 

Q:  Why did Lumosity undertake this particular study?

Michael Scanlon:  We collect a ton of data on people's cognitive performance--and we save all of it.  We want to use this data to better understand human cognition in general and better understand what factors go into improving cognitive performance and overall brain health.  But while we have a lot of data on performance and who some of the best performers are, we didn't know all that much about what they were doing on a day-to-day basis.  So we randomly surveyed 750,000 users and asked them about how much they sleep, what kind of food they eat, how much they exercise they get and other things like that.  We had a suspicion that these lifestyle factors would affect cognition--and the results suggest that they do.

Q:  Your finding that only a couple days of exercise per week is correlated with better cognitive performance goes against some of the hard research findings that say that daily exercise is critical to brain health.  How do you sync that up?

Michael Scanlon:  There's a very slight decrease in performance after two or three days per week of exercise--but really, that decrease is miniscule.  We're not really sure what that means.  Obviously, we don't think that exercising more than two or three days a week is bad for you.  We're not saying that at all.  But there may be diminishing returns cognitively and you may get the same improvement from just committing to a few days of exercise a week. 

Q:  Your findings also suggest that a daily alcoholic beverage and exactly 7 hours of sleep per night are important to performance.  Did any of these results surprise you or stand out as particularly interesting?

Michael Scanlon:  I found the sleep one very interesting.  When you look at the raw data, people who have seven hours of sleep have the highest performance.  If you slept less than that or more than that, performance declined.  We saw this peak and we're not sure why--except that it's very interesting.  But it's important to note that this is a correlational study.  So we don't know if this is really about sleep itself or some other different factors that are related to sleep.

Q:  That raises a good point.  You have a disclaimer that this is just a correlational study between habits and performance on Lumosity tasks.  There is no way of knowing whether there is a direct relationship between these lifestyle choices and brain function.  Given that, what do you think we can takeaway from this data?

Michael Scanlon:  I think the big takeaway is that all of these factors we measured as important are really very moderate.  There's a really consistent story here that little changes may make a big difference.  It looks like you don't have to get a ton of exercise every week.  You don't have to be a teetotaler.  And you don't have to sleep 12 hours a night.  And I think that's very interesting--and may be what someone needs to see in order to start implementing a few healthy changes in their own lives.

Credit:  jimmi/Shutterstock.com

LinkedIn meets Tinder in this mindful networking app

Swipe right to make the connections that could change your career.

Getty Images
Swipe right. Match. Meet over coffee or set up a call.

No, we aren't talking about Tinder. Introducing Shapr, a free app that helps people with synergistic professional goals and skill sets easily meet and collaborate.

Keep reading Show less

What’s behind our appetite for self-destruction?

Is it "perverseness," the "death drive," or something else?

Photo by Brad Neathery on Unsplash
Mind & Brain

Each new year, people vow to put an end to self-destructive habits like smoking, overeating or overspending.

Keep reading Show less

Can the keto diet help treat depression? Here’s what the science says so far

A growing body of research shows promising signs that the keto diet might be able to improve mental health.

Photo: Public Domain
Mind & Brain
  • The keto diet is known to be an effective tool for weight loss, however its effects on mental health remain largely unclear.
  • Recent studies suggests that the keto diet might be an effective tool for treating depression, and clearing up so-called "brain fog," though scientists caution more research is necessary before it can be recommended as a treatment.
  • Any experiments with the keto diet are best done in conjunction with a doctor, considering some people face problems when transitioning to the low-carb diet.
Keep reading Show less

Douglas Rushkoff – It’s not the technology’s fault

It's up to us humans to re-humanize our world. An economy that prioritizes growth and profits over humanity has led to digital platforms that "strip the topsoil" of human behavior, whole industries, and the planet, giving less and less back. And only we can save us.

Think Again Podcasts
  • It's an all-hands-on-deck moment in the arc of civilization.
  • Everyone has a choice: Do you want to try to earn enough money to insulate yourself from the world you're creating— or do you want to make the world a place you don't have to insulate yourself from?
Keep reading Show less