What Happens When Your Startup Gets Debunked By Science?

The $1 billion field of digital brain training faces down some damning research.

Lumosity, a venture-backed San Francisco startup that is a leader in the cognitive training field, started the year with nowhere to go but up. The brain games site has 35 million users, raised a total of $65 million, and is adding 100,000 new users a day—everyone from elderly folks seeking to keep their memory sharp, to schoolchildren looking to beat ADHD. Last week they were named finalists in a Clayton Christensen-backed education innovation competition. There are even IPO rumors for the company, which uses a freemium model for its online brain games. "We wanted to take these tools isolated in academic papers and empower people to be able to shape how they want to think," cofounder Michael Scanlon, a neuroscientist himself, told Fast Company at SXSWEdu last month.

But live by the science, die by the science. As reported recently by the New Yorker, several studies have been published that failed to support previous positive effects for brain training games. Researchers have identified a "pattern" of problems in the ways the pro-brain training studies were designed. Most damningly, a big meta-analysis of all the major research on the topic—the gold standard of social science research—showed short-term boosts in working memory, improvements that did not last and were not generalizable to other cognitive tasks like attention, verbal and math ability.

Approached for comment, Lumosity's public relations rep Erica Perng said, "We believe that the overall literature demonstrating the benefits of cognitive training remains very strong." She linked to several peer-reviewed studies that do support Lumosity's efficacy—although one of the three also showed that the effects of the training did not translate to everyday self-reported improvements in memory.

The stakes are high here, and not just for people who want to feel good about their daily video game fix. Cognitive training is based on the well-supported science of neuroplasticity, a concept that is seemingly everywhere these days. The basic insight that you can improve your mental ability by working more, harder, and smarter is a powerful psychological motivator with some serious effects in school and work.

If these particular brain games aren't the way to do it, the question is, what will?

[Image: Flickr user Dierk Schaefer]

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  • varontron

    Practicing music, and listening, are essential for musicianship.  Practicing sport is essential for athletic skill development.  Reading is essential for improving language skill and vocabulary.  Actors rehearse.  Why is it so hard to accept that practicing arithmetic, peripheral vision, focus, rapid-fire decision-making, and short term memory can improve cognitive processing?  Are these improvements generalizable?  Perhaps.  Even if not, I've already benefitted from these exercises indirectly, by realizing how many distractions surround me at home (my scores are inversely proportional to the volume of the tv or the kids.)  The supporting science will win eventually, I suspect.  For now, I'm just a believer.  In the meantime, $1.50/month is a small price to pay (lumosity.com's 2-yr family rate w/coupon) for an entertaining and potentially beneficial activity. 

  • Joshua Vander Hook

    The research seems to show that the training doesn't generalize. But that doesn't have much to do with Neuro-plasticity and all that. If I can always improve, that doesn't imply that I can train in one thing and improve a different thing.  The work is on finding small, easy steps which have far-reaching improvements. If those don't exist, that doesn't mean practice doesn't make perfect.

  • Game Researcher

    Its too early to draw any clear conclusions from the literature. If we consider Hebb's Law "if it fires together, it wires together", it is improbable that a one-size-fits-all approach to 'brain training' is likely to generate much more than a steady cash flow for the company. But while the claims made by brain training software companies are probably hyperbole, some version of interactive brain training is also probably efficacious. Think about a trained neurologist administering a carefully chosen set of games based on extensive cognitive testing and a clear understanding of learning goals. And there is much more to learn. Shawn Greene has found, in a number of carefully conducted studies, that playing 3D shooters can help people with certain visual disorders. There is a great deal of snakeoil on both the corporate and academic sides of the serious games field, but that does not mean that there is nothing of value there as well.

  • Henry Mahncke

    If these particular brain games aren't the way to do it, the question is, what will? People who want to use a brain training program that's been shown to work should try Posit Science (http://www.positscience.com). We and our scientific collaborators have published more than 60 peer-reviewed scientific articles showing that our specific approach to brain training works - read about the studies at 


  • Terrence Andrew Davis

    24The scribe’s wisdom increases wisdom;whoever is free from toil can become wise.

    My impression is IQ is for the young and wisdom is for the old.  Is brain training meant to keep mentally fit when getting old?

  • gwen rothberg

    Well, if it turns out that it was Dumbo's magical feather, then so be it.  My 10 year old was cognitively functionioning low....and I mean looooowwww and it was making life hard for him and unbearable for me and his dad and brothers.  We did a hybrid of 12 weeks of brain training 1:1 with a trainer (think Learning Rx style) and then supplemented that with Lumosity where he started in the low 200s.  He's A/B honor role today and about to break 800 for the first time.  It's not quite been a year, and we did take a 90 day break over Dec - Feb, and with some new skills and therapy (on everyone's part,) he's getting better. For us, many of the chips are going to stay firmly in the pile assigned to cognitive skills training.  I think the thing our young writer needs to bear in mind is that CST is not just about working memory, but creating brain connections in all areas of the brain; visual span, auditory processing,visual processing, decoding, sorting and working memory (the big one) as well as assembling and disassembling information. If you consider the task of separating ideas or picking out groups of information, or in the case of an athlete, how long, how fast, how far - making a rapid fire decision to either go long or pull back, all of those cognizant brain activities can make or break success. These seemingly innocuous little games 'teach' the brain how to sort that material out whether you are trying to build an outline or write a paper, or condense it back to a summary. I don't know why its harder for some, but training the brain makes that kind of task make sense to people who previously had low cognitive skills. To read: MindGames: Taking games out of the closet; making your kids smarter by Julie Adams Flaherty

  • Richard Smith

    At a first reading of your comment, the training you've been doing might have just taught him the joy of using his brain. That may be functionally indistinguishable from actually increasing his cognitive abilities.