The promise of brain-training games is simple yet enticing: play word puzzles and matching games repeatedly, and watch your mental agility improve at work or school. The problem is, research thus far can't prove any benefit, and the Federal Trade Commission doesn't want to see ads stating otherwise. As a result, companies are rethinking how to pitch these brain games--even if they can't help you remember where you placed your car keys.
Lumos Labs, the maker of popular brain-training app Lumosity, announced Wednesday that it's releasing a new tool called Insights as part of its plan to "go beyond brain-training games" and focus more on data analysis. Insights will give customers more data about how they are performing on certain games compared with other users, which the company hopes will entice them to stay on the platform longer.
While the Lumosity app itself is free, Insights is available only with a subscription ($11.95 per month for an individual or $8.33 month for a family plan, with price reductions available if you commit to a one- or two-year plan). After you play a game eight times, Insights will give you a "game strength score" that indicates how well you're performing on that game compared with other ones. After you play a game 25 times, Insights will show you where you've made the most improvement and least improvement over the past month.
One of the tool's key features is its ability to monitor whether you emphasize speed or accuracy during the game. For now, that feature is available for only one of Lumosity's games--Ebb and Flow, which asks you to swipe through a sea of shifting green and yellow leaves and indicate the direction in which they are moving or pointing. The company plans to add that feature to its more than 50 games over time and encourage customers to focus on a different skill each time they play.
"The takeaway you might get from that is that the next five times you play the game, you might say, 'Let me focus just on speed this time and let me not get as nervous or change my behavior after making a mistake,'" Lumosity CEO Steve Berkowitz says.
Lumosity made headlines in January after paying a $2 million settlement to the FTC for misleading advertising. The FTC charged that Lumosity did not have enough research to back up its claim that playing its games would help people perform better in school and at work and ward off aging-related cognitive decline. Berkowitz insists that the settlement has not changed the company's strategy much, saying that the issues brought up by the FTC "had nothing to do with the product and the quality of the product. It was about certain advertising language."
"For us, brain training is about giving exercises that help you use your mental capabilities in many different ways. As we move into other areas on the web and turn our attention to personalizing the experience for the user, you'll see us continue to expand the definition of brain training," he says.
Alan Castel, a professor of psychology at the University of California Los Angeles, says these performance-based tools offer a smart way to tap into what makes online brain-training games addictive to many people in the first place--the idea that you can track your progress and see how well you are adapting to challenges presented by the game.
"It caters to people's motivations--we all like to show improvements on things, especially when it's related to one's own mental ability," Castel says. But he cautions that people shouldn't set aside other activities--such as physical exercise--that have been shown to improve brain function to solely focus on brain-training games.
The big question that remains for Lumosity is whether these personalized insights will be enough to lure new users--not just keep existing ones.
The field of brain training took a hit in July, after an analysis of 374 studies on the topic found that there still isn't enough evidence to say that brain training promotes a positive transfer effect--that is, that the more time you spend working on puzzles or memory-boosting tasks has concrete benefits for your brain outside of that task. But Lumosity insists that interest isn't waning--the company says that engagement (time spent on the platform per user) is up from 2015. The company says that it currently has 85 million registered users, up 15 million from a year ago.