Luminosity is a website/online service that provides a range of different cognitive challenges with the aim of helping to improve your brain function and specifically your ‘fluid intelligence’ which means the abstract ability to move numbers, concepts and shapes in our brain as opposed to ‘crystalized’ intelligence which refers essentially just to our ‘knowledge’ that is set in stone.
There are many such programs and products out there. Of course the iTunes store and Android Play Market are swarming with brain training apps at the moment, and Nintendo’s Brain Age could be seen as the package that started the whole movement. Luminosity however is currently the largest competitor in its field, and has a range of vocal advocates and a strong marketing campaign and presence online. The question is then, is it actually any good? Or is it just hype?
If you read the about section of Luminosity’s website then you’ll have a lot of ‘science’ thrown at you to try and lend the site credibility. These statements aren’t in correct, and some of them discuss areas of study I’m particularly interested in. You’ll see the term ‘brain plasticity’ crop up on numerous occasions for instance which is something I’m very interested in indeed. Essentially ‘brain plasticity’ refers to the recently discovered ‘plastic’ nature of the brain which in other words means that the brain is able to grow, shrink and generally alter its shape depending on how you use it. Do a particular physical task over and over and that part of your motor cortex will actually grow larger in response to the movement – just as the muscles in your body will grow larger in that area.
On the website this is used as evidence that ‘training’ your brain must be useful and bring results. At the same time the site also quotes a number of studies into similar tests – most of the games you’ll engage with on Luminosity are actually more entertaining forms of popular cognitive tests such as the ‘N-Back’ test and such as the ‘Stroop Test’. These have been shown to be effective in studies at improving short term memory and response times etc., and so that suggests that performing them regularly will improve your brain function.
The problem is that these studies have all been taken slightly out of context and that the power of Luminosity isn’t quite all it’s cracked up to be. First of all let’s look at those supporting studies – they aren’t for the Luminosity versions of the tests, they’re for the originals. At the same time though they demonstrate a more serious problem – the Luminosity tests that are proven to work actually also exist in many other forms and in fact are available online completely for free. Why would you pay to do those tests on Luminosity when you can search ‘N-Back Test’ in Google and use the training game completely for free?
The other problem is that these tasks haven’t been compared to other routine cognitive tasks we’re already performing. For instance there is no proof that the N-Back test is any more effective at improving fluid intelligence than adding up the total when you do your weekly shop. There is certainly no evidence that actually ties brain plasticity to this kind of mental training.
The point is then, that all Luminosity’s vaunted science manages to show is that there is a point to doing regular brain exercises – but I could have told you that already. What it doesn’t show is why you should pay a steep monthly subscription fee for their service when you can do a range of brain training tasks – including some that are exactly the same – completely for free.
If you struggle to stick at new routines and you like the structure and the social element of Luminosity then it does have some merit. However if you want to use the essentials of Luminosity completely for free, then just look for the analogous games online for free and make a habit of doing those every morning. More to the point though, think about how you can train your brain with other tasks that don’t have you sitting in front of a computer and that will be more useful for our day to day lives – that means things like challenging yourself to remember lists, learning a new skill, learning a new language, playing chess or other games or just doing maths sums.