One could wonder at the sophistication of Google Ads, when the most common ad I am served, as an aging boomer, is from Lumosity, hawking their brain training games. Or, because I am actually a neurobiologist, one could question Google’s sophistication because, in fact, I know that there is actually no scientific basis for Lumosity’s claims for “cognitive improvement”. Further, Google should know that over the last several years I have become more and more strident, concerned and vocal about the growing misuse of neuroscience by companies and individuals hawking complete nonsense like “the Science of Neuroplasticity” to sell their wares.
While perhaps the growing number of non-neuroscience keynote speakers now referencing brain imaging and some version of pop cognitive neuroscience in their talks can be forgiven to some extent, there is a decidedly disturbing trend towards commercial enterprises that claim to include neurobiologists in their ranks, like Lumosity. Of even more concern are the increasing number of faculty with actual neuroscience appointments who are giving talks, or hosting PBS specials without acknowledging up front their commercial interests. In my view, this kind of deception hurts neuroscience, the public as well as the development of games for learning. As evidenced in this blog, I have steadfastly for years refused to justify my efforts with Whyville based on my knowledge of neuroscience.
Not surprisingly, perhaps, there is common thread of false assumptions, exaggerated claims, and miss-use of neurobiological data and especially brain imaging running through many of these enterprises. While this forum is not appropriate for a full scientific refutation of these miss-representations, perhaps it is useful to briefly mention a few:
1) Is it possible to improve cognitive function by making a game out of a task originally developed as a cognitive assessment measure? This slight of hand is the basis for many of the brain training games and especially those now being promoted by Lumosity. To understand the issue, let me change the frame of reference to nutrition. While it is not generally known, the original objective of the FDA’s recommended daily adult nutritional requirements was to identify the amounts of certain nutritionally important substances (Calcium, Protein, Vitamin C, etc.), which, if present in a normal 1950’s diet of ‘real’ food, meant one was eating well. In other words, the FDA’s objective was to come up with a set of indicators as to whether your diet was healthy given you were eating non-manufactured food. Of course, food manufacturing companies distorted the intent, producing, for example, breakfast cereal like ‘Total”, claiming that one bowl would fulfill all your daily requirements. Can you survive eating ‘Total” alone, of course you can’t. The FDA’ s ‘indicators of a healthy diet’ were simply misused as a marketing ploy to sell cereal. Similarly, when Lumosity converts an ‘indicator’ of cognitive function, into a game claimed to enhance that cognitive function, it is once again only a marketing ploy.
2) Does improved performance on a game actually mean that you have ‘cured’ a cognitive deficit? While Lumosity would like you to believe that you can tune up your brain with their games (no evidence see below), a new set of companies founded or directed by neurobiologists (e.g. http://www.akiliinteractive.com) want you to believe that their games have the potential to cure cognitive disease. Of course another marketing ploy used by these Neuro-marketers is to generate as large a bibliography of apparent scientific support for their products. Lumosity itself builds their “scientific bibliography” with their own research papers as well as by making their game data available to ‘collaborating scientists”. In one such recently published example, a clinical researcher reported that his patients suffering from liver disorders performed significantly slower on several Lumosity games (http://pando.com/2014/03/05/study-finds-lumosity-games-might-be-able-to-diagnose-liver-disease/). Using this study as an example, if, as is usually the case, repeated play of the game increases the performance on the game, does that mean that the livers of his patients have been returned to health? Of course not. It simply means that repeated playing of the game results in improved performance on that game. Similarly, does this mean that you can diagnose liver disease by playing the game. Of course, not there are probably thousands of reasons why your performance might be slower on this game. It is only when you know someone has liver disease that you can interpret the results – not diagnostic at all.
3) Does improved performance on a game mean general improvement in cognitive function? While it is perhaps obvious that improving game performance through repeated play is unlikely to affect a patents liver, the same concern actually also applies to claims of general cognitive enhancement by playing games. This is known as the question of transference, and has probably been the subject of the largest number of scientific studies to date related to the claims of the brain-training marketers. While a review of that literature is beyond the scope of this article, there is no question that the preponderance of the current evidence shows no transference at all. In other words, the only thing you learn by playing a game is to improve your performance on that game, or closely related games, with no measurable influence on your general cognitive abilities. That is not to say that there are not claims made in the literature for such transference. However, not infrequently, those claims have made by individuals with vested interests. Repeatedly, when non-commercially interested scientists run the experiments again, they fail to show the same results. For a recent review of this issue see: http://www.the-scientist.com/?articles.view/articleNo/39768/title/Does-Brain-Training-Work-/
4) Are changes in human cognition with aging “cognitive decline” and can or should we all be striving to have brains that work like 20 year olds? This assumption is a core assertion and marketing ploy of most of the brain-training marketers. As already mentioned, there is a reason that Lumosity’s Google ad words campaign is aimed at aging boomers, while their on air marketing is primarily on PBS and NPR (mostly watched by boomers). Their marketing strategy is based on what I believe to be a societally induced (and profitable in general) cognitive insecurity in seniors coupled with the claim that they can restore younger cognitive function by playing brain games, a core assumption betting that brain performance peaks in your mid 20’s and declines thereafter. This, however, is a false and misleading statement of the reality of the process of human brain aging. Having spent the last 3 years in one of the top research institutes on aging in the U.S. (http://barshopinstitute.uthscsa.edu) the fact that human cognition changes from birth to death most likely reflects the different roles and positions of individuals with different age in human society. In a kind of reverse miss understanding of the process of brain development and aging, one often hears these days that adolescent males have deficits in their frontal lobes that preclude them from accurately assessing the possible longer term consequences of their short term behavior. If this was not the case, I predict you would have many fewer young males signing up for the military, or assuming the long-term risks associated with a few moments of pleasure on Saturday night. Young males and females play a distinctly different role in society than do older individuals. Cognitive changes almost certainly reflect those roles. While again this is not the place for a long discourse on the subject, brain modeling has suggested that brains with less experience solve problems faster, but in a less sophisticated way than do older brains with more experience. In the parlance of brain modeling, less experienced brains solve problems using look up tables, while older brains (with more experience and fewer neurons) solve problems through a process of generalization. Call it the Wisdom effect – but the point is that, in fact, brain computation is always trading off different kinds of processing – fast and less general, slower and wiser. While there is, as mentioned, no evidence that playing games can restore ‘young brain function’, it is also likely to be a very bad idea. Perhaps one should even consider whether the attempt to do so might have deleterious psychological effects. For example, what are the potential psychological consequences to seniors of watching their performance deteriorate with time on games requiring more youthful cognitive abilities? Of course, Lumosity would seem to take care of that problem by assuring that performance continues to appear to improve as you play their games. Throughout marketing history companies have made money by exploiting older people, this is just a new way to do it.
5) Do the measures of brain function used to justify and support neuro-marketing actually measure what is claimed? For a neurobiologist, this is perhaps the most disturbing aspect of the recent growth in Neuro-Marketing. It is remarkable how many marketing efforts, across a broad spectrum of products and keynote addresses, now at one point or another provide a bright red, yellow and green colored picture of the brain as some kind of proof of some claim being made. It is not unusual, for example, for presenters to show a brain image in which the brain playing the games has all kinds of bright colors (best if in ‘frontal cortex’), while one not playing games has none at all. Having spent 10 years as a professor in a Brain Imaging Institute, I can tell you that one of the many scientific problems with brain imaging is that it is remarkable how easy it is to manipulate the outcome – however, a brain with no activity at all is simply dead. For sure a dead brain is hard to engage in game play. However, there is a deeper and more fundamental problem with fMRI brain imaging, and that is that the technique does not actually measure the activity of neurons, instead it measures metabolic changes (the degree of tissue oxygenation, for example). Though a serious subject of research for many years, there is still no definitive connection between these metabolic measures and the actual behavior of the brain’s neurons. Therefore, when someone points at a colored brain and tells you that some part of the brain is being ‘activated’ by their game or product, there is actually no scientific basis in fact to make that claim. It is simply marketing. The fact that most of cognitive neuroscience itself relies on this slight of hand is no excuse. I have suggested publically for several years that the federal government should suspend funding for MRI studies until we actually know what the signal means to brain function. This situation is of even more concern when fMRI images are combined with other non-specific measures of brain function, like EEGz. First, theoretically it is not possible to localize the brain sources of EEG recordings without assuming in advance where the signals are coming from. You can therefore understand the problem if you are using fMRI data, which has no known relationship to neuronal activity, as a mechanism to localize the source of EEGs. The argument is completely circular. The fact that such a combination might make a fascinating illuminated display is useful for marketing, but not for brain science. Further claims now made that you can use this combination of measures during game play to ‘fix’ broken brain circuits, is technically ridiculous, in addition to discounting at least 40 years of research in computational neuroscience about how brains actually work.
6) Finally, one can ask, are there actually known scientifically valid ways to stay cognitively ‘sharp’. One of perhaps the most infuriating aspects of the endless Lumosity ads I keep being subjected to, is that they almost all start by pointing out that you go to the gym to keep your body in shape, but aren’t doing anything for your brain. A great marketing ploy, but, in fact, the only scientifically proven way to maintain cognitive vigor is physical exercise. If Lumosity where the ‘neurobiologically based’ company it claims to be, they would know that. Instead, of course, their objective is to get as many seniors as possible to sign up for their brain training games – while, by the way, making it very hard to unsubscribe. Classic marketing ploy for older people – and shameful.
If you are interested in a somewhat more playful discussion of these issues, you might find the session I organized at last years Games for Change conference of value: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Joqmf4baaT8&list=PL1G85ERLMItAA0Bgvh0PoZ5iGc6cHEv6f&index=16