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So Far, There's No Magic Bullet For The Mind

So far, it appears online games are not a magic bullet for to keep the mind strong.
iStockphoto
So far, it appears online games are not a magic bullet for to keep the mind strong.
iStockphoto

Lumosity, a "brain games" company, has agreed to pay $2 million to settle a Federal Trade Commission deceptive advertising suit.

According to Jessica Rich, director of the FTC's Bureau of Consumer Protection, the brain-fitness company, "preyed on consumers' fears about age-related cognitive decline, suggesting their games could stave off memory loss, dementia, and even Alzheimer's disease."

The claims the company made, it seems, are entirely without basis. As she says: "Lumosity simply did not have the science to back up its ads."

In fact, if I am right in my reading of the FTC report, the amount that the company (or its parent) is required to fork over is more like 12 times that much, but the bulk of the damages are being waived because of the company's "financial condition."

I hate to say I told you so, but I told you so.

I think it's almost certainly true, other things being equal, that it's good to play the sorts of games that Lumosity offers. It may even be true, other things being equal, that you get more cognitive bang for your buck with Lumosity than, say, with other games (like crosswords, for example, as they modestly announce on their web site).

But this doesn't mean that Lumosity's games are a magic bullet that will keep you young and healthy, cognitively speaking. As the FTC maintains, there is no evidence of that.

And this should come as no surprise. There are no quick fixes. Not when it comes to physical exercise, and not when it comes to mental exercise.

And how likely is it that something we do too much of already — playing on our phones — could be part of the solution to greater mental health?

In my last 13.7 essay on this topic, I cited Dr. Murali Doraiswamy, director of the neurocognitive disorders program at Duke Institute for Brain Sciences, who had been quoted in The New York Times as saying:

"I'm not convinced there is a huge difference between buying a $300 subscription to a gaming company versus you yourself doing challenging things on your own, like attending a lecture or learning an instrument. Each person has to personalize for themselves what they find fun and challenging and what they can stick with."

Dr. Doraiswamy's conjecture — and it sure makes a lot of sense — is that it isn't what you do that's important. It's the fact that you're active, mentally, and probably also physically, that is good for your brain.

Even if Lumosity is good for you, and even if it's better for you than crosswords, it stands to reason that Lumosity and crosswords would be even better. And for all we know, it could very well be the case that learning a new language and taking up Kung Fu, or quitting your job and backpacking across Asia, would be better than anything that can be delivered on your smart phone for minutes a day.

The science isn't in on that either. But it makes you wonder.

Even in the absence of the right longitudinal studies, we are in good position now to know that there are no quick fixes, that you can't stop the effects of aging, and that, all things considered, active people — people who use their bodies and their minds and who resist the grab of habit, repetition and inertia — are likely to lead better, more satisfying lives.

Editor's note: Lumosity is a sponsor of NPR programming. NPR's principles are clear: There is a "firewall" separating NPR journalists from those who fund its operations. As our Ethics Handbook states, "while we value all who support our work, those who fund us do so in the knowledge that our journalism serves only the public."


Alva Noë is a philosopher at the University of California, Berkeley, where he writes and teaches about perception, consciousness and art. He is the author of several books, including his latest, Strange Tools: Art and Human Nature (Farrar Straus and Giroux, 2015). You can keep up with more of what Alva is thinking on Facebook and on Twitter: @alvanoe