No doubt recently you have seen ads for Lumosity.com and its pledge to provide exercises to improve memory and intelligence for people of all ages. At the time of this blog post, the free Lumosity app for iPhone and iPad holds the coveted #1 spot in downloads.
It is clear that Lumosity.com is doing something right. But, before we sign up, it’s important to ask: 1.“What is the science behind Lumosity?” and, 2.“Does it work?”
1. The Science
Lumosity is the brainchild of a multi-year study designed to answer the question: “Do the most selective colleges have the most intelligent students?”
The question is difficult to answer for many reasons, the first of which being that selectivity in colleges is often based on test scores, the school’s funding per student, the ratio of students per faculty, and a number of other factors several degrees away from measuring intelligence.
So, Dr. Daniel Sternberg and his research associates at Lumos labs needed to first define: “What is intelligence?”
Just thinking about it, there are many different ways a person at any age can shine: some can make everyone feel at ease while chatting up a group, others can excel at recalling names, and still others can plan thirteen moves ahead in chess games. But, does the ability to do any of these things, or any combination of these things make us “intelligent”?
For the study, Sternberg quantified intelligence as the degree of accuracy one could demonstrate while taking game-based tests requiring the use of 5 discrete areas of brain function:
- Attention Span
- Speed of Processing
- Problem Solving
A study of individuals and their achievement in these five dimensions of intelligence was performed at four hundred different colleges in America with 60,000 students total. The data was compiled with the average age of test subjects being 21 years old. Subjects were only allowed to take the tests once, and not repeat any games to improve their performance.
Using these criteria, the colleges who had students who did the best on these games were:
- Massachusetts Institute of Technology
- Harvard University
- Stanford University
- Northwestern University Yale University
- Washington University in St Louis
- Dartmouth College
- Wellesley College
- Rose-Hulman Institute of Technology
- Duke University
As you can see, especially in the top 5, there was a correlation between the most selective schools and the students who are able to demonstrate excellent attention span, memory, fast processing, problem solving, and flexibility. It’s interesting to note, however, that some universities that aren’t as selective sometimes ranked higher than Ivy-League schools.
For the complete rankings and Dr. Sternberg’s published paper, you can find it in .pdf form here.
2.That’s nice, but does it Work?
Lumosity.com has re-purposed the games used to assess the smartest students for Lumosity’s customers in their training program. The games and the website are under a great deal of professional skepticism right now, and a number of studies are being done. In particular, a study by the National Institute of Mental Health scheduled to publish in 2013 promises to answer the question:
“Does one’s mental abilities improve due to playing Lumosity’s games, or, does one only improve at playing the games?”
This is a particularly important question considering how the original test subjects were allowed to play the games only once. Since the students didn’t have a chance to improve, their ability to demonstrate the complex skills required by the games only one time is empirically a better reflection of their intelligence. The ability to improve one’s performance by playing a game again and again does require learning, but does getting better at playing one of these games improve the mental skills necessary to play the games?
If playing these games really trains one’s mind, will you start remembering where you put your keys? Will you be able to calculate the tip for a server in an eyeblink instead of having to round up the tax and double it? Will you be able to remember specific dates, birthdays, and not get in trouble anymore for forgetting anniversaries?
Too early to say.
However, Lumosity.com is a multi-million dollar, research-backed program with millions of subscribers whose data is feeding into the Human Cognition Project. Lumos Labs has a vested interest in proving its program yields results and claims to be designing new games and refining their process daily. Finally, at around five dollars a month, (and free on iTunes for the introductory program) there aren’t many reasons not to try it.
The games are fun, a nice distraction on the subway, and an educational way to spend a few minutes. I’m a Lumosity member myself and have seen my performance playing specific games improve and I have (perhaps) noticed my memory improve. It could be a placebo effect because I keep telling myself I’m doing games to improve my memory, but, I’m not sure yet.
However, I can say that students who use Lumosity’s games often feel like they are becoming smarter, giving them an extra bit of confidence that often makes a big difference when it comes to school work.
Feel free to share your thoughts below for the blog.
Also, when the National Institute of Mental Health publishes their findings on Lumosity.com, I’ll update this post.
By Grant Bergland, Private Tutor