Friday, January 30, 2015

2 Years of Brain Training with Lumosity - And Why I'm Not Continuing

Image taken from Lumosity's Twitter Page

Two years.  Yup, that's right: for two years now I have been using the online brain training website Lumosity as part of my daily mental exercise regimen.  

"Mental exercise regimen, you say?  What is this hubbub?"  

"Surely you've seen the articles that show that 'brain training' is a bunch of bullshit?!"

Well inquisitive friend voice that I just created for the purpose of turning your (or, uh, my) words against you, a mental exercise regimen is what you do in your life to keep your mind functioning at its best (just as physical exercise is to keep your body functioning at its best).  And I most definitely have seen some of the various articles and blogs out there that are opposed to Lumosity, though I've actually seen far more of the usual interwebs outrage porn from people on social media who like to bash Lumosity without having tried it or even having read about the potential pros, cons, and unknowns with brain training.

This post is going to give a brief summary of brain training and why I do it.  Also, I'd like to share my experience with Lumosity, and then explain why, after 2 years of using Lumosity, I am going to let me subscription come to an end.  

Image from Legendary Collegian

My Brain Will Outsmart Your Brain!

Well, maybe not.  That's not why I have a mental exercise regimen, so hopefully you're not one of those people who likes to imply that all of us who use brain training software like that of Lumosity are somehow under the assumption that we are capable of turning ourselves into hyperaware super geniuses like Bradley Cooper's character in the 2011 film Limitless (based on the novel The Dark Fields by Alan Glynn).  For me, mental exercise is just about keeping my mind functional as I age.  There's been a lot of history and research to support mental exercise, but there's also a lot of uncertainty as to how effective it is as well.

In this Lumosity blog post, Pam Zhang recounts a little bit of the history of brain training.  For instance, she mentions the story of Simonides and his discovery of The Method of Loci.  Simonides, so the story goes, had been at a banquet and, when he had momentarily stepped outside, the building collapsed, killing everyone inside.  Families and friends came to uncover the bodies of the fallen, but they had no idea where their beloved had died and could then be found under the rubble.  Simonides, with a quick moment of thought, realized that he could recount where each and every person had been located before the collapse.  By taking his mind on a "walk" through the building before the collapse, he could place each of the other attendees in their spot.  This method of memory recall became one of the primary memory techniques for all of the time following Simonides.  In the Rhetorica Ad Herennium, a Roman author (who was believed to have been Cicero, but now that claim has been called into question) detailed The Method of Loci and how that method could be used to build a Memory Palace, a place within your mind where you create a mental image of the thing to be remembered and you give it a location (or locus) relative to a house, palace, town, or world that you've built within your mind.  As Zhang points out, the switch from oration to long form writing as the primary means of education, record keeping, and storytelling (thanks to the printing press) caused a huge decline in the use of the old memory techniques like The Method of Loci.  There were groups here and there who continued some of the memory training traditions, including great speakers and writers.

As Pam Zhang explains in her article, the Pelman Institute, which was created by William Joseph Ennever in 1890s, saw a resurgence of brain training amongst the public.  Merging some of the old memory techniques with other mental exercises (especially that of trying to build your original awareness - your ability to be aware of yourself and your surroundings.  Might sound simple and straightforward, but if you've seen someone walking down the street who is lost in their smart phone and can't walk a straight line then you have seen a complete lack of original awareness), Ennever developed his Pelman approach to sell mental training for a fee.  By the time the system took off in the 1930s, people could pay a small fee (just under 7 British pounds, at the time) and they would be enrolled in a course where they would receive twelve mini-booklets containing exercises.  There were other booklets and tidbits released over time, but the original twelve were the basis of Ennever's system (you can now download the entire Pelman course in PDF format thanks to Sector 51).  Pelmanism was pretty much for the people of the early 1900s what sites like Lumosity are today.

Zhang's article also mentions the work of Eleanor Maguire, the Irish neuroscientist who showed that London cab drivers have a measurable redistribution of grey matter in their hippocampi that relates to their use of navigational cognition (see also this article if you're super interested).  Maguire also studied the brains and brain area activation of competitors in the World Memory Championships, and found that these competitors, when tasked with memorizing something, had an increased utilization in areas of the brain that correspond to spatial memory than did people who didn't use memorization techniques (remember the story of Simonides?).  In the 2003 article in Nature where they reports this research, Maguire and colleagues wrote:

"...We found that superior memory was not driven by exceptional intellectual ability or structural brain differences.  Rather, we found that superior memorizers used a spatial learning strategy, engaging brain regions such as the hippocampus that are critical for memory and for spatial memory in particular.  ...[research in this area] could broaden the scope for memory improvement in the general population and the memory-impaired."

Training your mind using memory techniques and brain training of various types is not necessarily about improving your intelligence (even though there are some people who think that it might be possible), but rather about improving the flexibility of your mind to best use the intelligence you already have.  By reading often and reading different kinds of material, challenging your mind with math puzzles and riddles, trying out new avenues of creativity like art and music, and partaking in a regimen of mental exercise, you can keep your mind flexible and ready to utilize all the intelligence you have.  On top of all of that, mental exercise is fun.  Playing video games or board games, attempting to build a card castle, or solving geometry puzzles can be a ridiculously awesome amount of fun.  Although I love drinking a good beer and laughing with friends (and find that to also be healthy and beneficial), I still find it beneficial to take a small amount of time out of each day to focus solely on mental exercise (and I usually do it right before I do my physical exercise).

Beautiful artwork by Allegator at Deviant Art which depicts Benedict Cumberbatch as Sherlock Holmes from the BBC series Sherlock.  In the series, as well as the films and the original stories by Arthur Conan Doyle, Sherlock is a master of using the memory systems.

Ways to Exercise Your Brain

Mental training isn't just about playing games, but rather about giving yourself new challenges and constantly pushing your mind to work a little bit harder than normal.  Video games, brain training software, playing games with friends, learning and playing musical instruments, drawing and painting, doing math problems and puzzles, and various forms of meditation all count as mental exercise (when done properly and not overdone).  Also, learning about and using the various memory techniques is helpful for all areas of mental exercise.  I'm by no means the expert on this topic, but I have tried a lot of programs and such over the years so I have a good idea of what works for me.  Outside of Lumosity, here are some of my suggestions for brain training websites (most of which are free!) for anyone who wants to find things to add to their own mental exercise regimen:


My current favorite for mental exercise is the website Cerego.  The program is based on adaptive learning to help a user improve their memorization of material that's available on the site.  Much like working with flash cards, the user can pick a set of information that will offer associations of text, images, or audio and then test their knowledge of those associations.  What's great about the site is that the learning process knows what you do well and what you need to work on and schedules your next test of the material based on what needs the most work.  There are sets including everything from famous works of art, classic books, general physics, symbols of the chemical elements, and more.  A user can create their own sets for their private use (for instance, I have one set that I use to memorize the names and faces of people across campus) and a user can also create content for public use (I now have two sets that I've made public, one for Introductory Geology and one for Geobiology).

Khan Academy

Khan Academy is awesome!  The website has all kinds of stuff you can learn, from general science to computer programming.  The part of the website I use everyday and enjoy the most is the World of Math.  Each day I can work through anything from a couple up to thirty or so math problems that range from elementary school math up to calculus and differential equations.  The content is fantastic!

Word Dynamo

This is a program that lets you challenge your vocabulary through multiple choice questions, crosswords, and more.  Word Dynamo is a great way to build your vocabulary, which can make you a better speaker and writer.


Co-developed by Ed Cooke, a world champion of memory, Memrise is much like Cerego, where you can work through sets of associations for information and the site is built to help you work on the information that you have the hardest time with

There's more...

A few others include Code Academy, Coursera, Duolingo, Fit Brains (this one isn't free and there's not much you can do for free before they want money), and Brilliant (which I just discovered and which has a lot of great math work for those who love math).

So go out there and work on your brain, but definitely let me tell you why I think Lumosity was awesome and why I won't be using it anymore.

Image can be found here

Is Lumosity Really Worth $120 Per Year?

Short answer

If you have the money and you will definitely use the site at least several times each week, then 'yes'.  If you would likely spend $120 in the year on more video games or puzzle books and such, then it's definitely worth it to give Lumosity a try and skip the other stuff for a year.  But, in my opinion, Lumosity is really only good for one year.  After that, it loses its worth (and that worth is definitely already subjective; see below).  And, if you don't really have the money, then don't do it.  There are a lot of other things that you could spend $120 on.

Long Answer

Okay, so here's my take on Lumosity: there is definitely research out there to support brain training, but not so much as to make a strong claim that everyone will benefit from using Lumosity or that you will definitely improve your mental flexibility by using Lumosity.  Furthermore, with all of the cost-free or minimal-cost stuff that you can do to train your brain, it makes it hard to justify spending money on Lumosity.

Also, there are definitely people out there with very strong messages against using Lumosity. For instance, in this Gizmodo article titled "Lumosity's Brain Games are Bullshit", the author definitely makes her bold claim against Lumosity, but she also has some very valid points.  There is no consensus amongst scientists and researchers who study neuroscience that claims that brain training sites like Lumosity work as well as their developers like to claim (here are articles from the Guardian and from AAAS which detail some of the arguments), and there are definitely huge ranges of support or opposition from the general public (here's the Quora page for Lumosity).  

Lumosity and other brain training sites definitely sell their programs as being beneficial, for instance here's the controversial article from Lumos Labs titled "The Science Behind Lumosity" that details their proposed supportive research.  They can point to various pieces of research that appear to show the benefit of brain training, and, now that these sites have been operating for quite some time, they can point to research that shows potential benefits of using their software.  For instance, this article in Clinical Breast Cancer shows that using a computer-based mental training regimen with a program like Lumosity's may improve the quality of life of breast cancer survivors who were treated with chemotherapy by aiding in maintenance of executive functions (like working memory and attention).  When it comes down to it, there's some research out there to support the use of brain training sites like Lumosity, but not really so much that it justifies spending $120 each year on the site.  Especially since there are so many free things you can do to exercise your brain.  

I definitely won't try to sell you on using Lumosity.  I've used the site now for 2 full years and have had a great time playing the games, but I know that Lumosity is no longer worth the money for me.

Lumosity's Games

As I mentioned above, I've had a lot of fun using Lumosity.  There are a lot of awesome games that are aimed at testing your mental flexibility in different ways.  Here are some of my favorite games on Lumosity (for a full list of their games look here):

Speed Match Overdrive

This is a game where you are presented with a card that has a certain shape and color.  Once you start, that first card will be flipped and a new card will be presented.  It's up to you to decide if the new card has the same shape and color on it, if only the shape or the color are the same, or if neither are the same.  Sounds pretty simply, but to do it quickly really makes your mind work.  This game is awesome!  However, Lumosity doesn't like to include it in their normal training settings (you have to change to student or advanced settings or you have to select the game yourself).

Memory Matrix

Memory games are some of my favorite.  Memory Matrix is a game where you are presented with a grid of squares (the size of the grid depends on how well you do in the game).  At the beginning of each turn, some number of the squares (or tiles) will be highlighted momentarily and then disappear.  You job is to then remember which tiles were highlighted and click them.  This is a classic way of testing your working memory.  There are various ideas about how our memory works, but one of the most accepted is that you have an immediate memory from your senses, you then have a working memory (basically what your mind has just processed and can actively recall immediately), and then there's your long term memory.  Since around the time of the work of George Miller and onward, it's been known that on average we can only store a small number of distinct items in our working memory at any given time.  Improving your working memory is about finding ways of chunking certain bits of information together so that they make one discrete item and are thus easier to remember.  Memory Matrix is all about chunking.  You eventually get used to certain arrangements of multiple tiles that can easily be remembered together and then you get better.  At this point, I see various shapes as unique and I also let my mind make imaginary figures out certain arrangements of tiles.

Familiar Faces

This is one of my favorite games, but it's also one that Lumosity really needs to improve.  We should all know that restaurant servers get a good deal of mental training on the job by testing their short term memories (the best servers don't need to write anything down, right?!).  This game makes you the server in various restaurant settings, with a bit of bustling noise in the background, and then presents you with customers.  Your job is to remember who they (pairing names and faces) and to remember what they order before it comes out (by pairing the right meals with the right people).  The game is a lot of fun for training your working memory and your facial recognition, but it doesn't take very long to get to the highest possible scores and the game never really becomes challenging enough to make it really worthwhile. 

Lost in Migration

This is a fun one.  You're presented with a flock of birds which will be facing in a certain direction.  Your job is to quickly identify whether the center bird is facing the same direction as the flock or in a different direction.  The game becomes more challenging the faster you push yourself to answer.  It's based on the "flanker" task developed by Charles Eriksen in 1974. 

Word Bubbles and Word Bubbles Rising

I love challenging my use of language and vocabulary.  These two games are the only games on Lumosity that offer such challenges.  To do well at these games, you have to be able to develop words given only a small string of letters that start the words.  It's a lot of fun (and will make you better at games like Scrabble).  During the last two years, I contacted Lumosity twice to ask for more games that worked with vocabulary or language.  These two are still the only ones they offer.  

Chalkboard Challenge

Here's one that's a lot of fun for the math problem fans out there.  You're presented with two cards, each of which has a small expression written on it.  Your job is to decide which card's expression has the higher value, by quickly running through the arithmetic in the expression to find it's overall value.  The faster you can be at computing the numbers or, even better, at determining which will be higher without fully solving the expression, the harder it gets and the higher your score.  Since I love math problems, this is one of my favorite games on Lumosity.

My Training Record on Lumosity

Since I'm just about done with their site, I decided to take some screen shots so I can always remember how I did with their program.  Here's the overall breakdown of how I did in my training over the last two years:

As you can see, I spent a lot of time playing Lumosity's games.  I tried my best to play the five games they suggest as part of the training each morning.  I stacked up pretty well for my age group (compared to other users of the site):

And, interestingly, of all the people who listed their career types on Lumosity, my best training games were most similar to those of Mathematicians.  Other similar people also worked in Education, Computer Science, Engineering, Finance, and Scientific Research.  (BTW, I had listed my professional occupation as Education).  The most dissimilar from me were Military and Culinary Arts.

It's nice to look back over my training record with the site.  It'll be an interesting change to my daily schedule to take Lumosity out of my mental exercise regimen.

Why I'm No Longer Going to Use Lumosity

It's been a fun two years, but once my subscription comes to an end in the next couple of weeks, I'm not going to continue using Lumosity.  The time has most definitely come, and here's why:

As I mentioned above, I think it justifiable to pay the $120 for a year of Lumosity (as long as you actually use it).  It's a lot of money to pay in one shot, but if you buy two new video games in a year it'll cost about the same.  I love video games, but I like to make my brain work in lots of various ways so it's nice to cut back on video games and add in other things to keep my mind active.  Even though I find that $120 a good deal, I really think it was only good for the first year.  I've still been using Lumosity almost every day, but they are very slow at adding new content and so the site can become a bit boring pretty quickly.  The only way to keep the site challenging was to alter the training settings every week or so, that way I'd get some different games once in a while.  Even though Lumosity likes to talk about how they have over 40 games to play, they really only offer a small subset of those games for each training setting (you can still access all of the games, but it would be nice to have them all come up every now and then in the daily training).  Since there's not enough change in the site, I don't think it's worth the money anymore.  I'll spend that $120 somewhere else this year.

Finally, my suggestion for Lumosity or other sites like it (like Elevate or Fit Brains) is to change up their games far more often.  Lumosity could be a lot more fun and a lot more challenging (and far more worth the cost) if they had a better rate of product development.  Lumosity was a great idea and has made a good deal of money offering a great service, but the daily users who pay top dollar for the site deserve the product they paid for.  In the case of Lumosity, the users are paying for a brain training program that offers continual challenge and, sadly, Lumosity doesn't offer a continual challenge after the first year.  

As I bring this long post to a close, I have to say that I really enjoyed Lumosity and I hope they do well in the future.  Maybe in a few years I'll check back and see what they've got going on, but my mental exercise regimen needs variation in order to keep my mind flexible.  

So long Lumosity, and thanks for all the fish.

RĂªverie by SM Craig


  1. I was attracted to luminosity and signed up myself and 2 sons. I don't think they ever used it maybe once as a novelty. My outrage is their auto billing after no use yet my secretary discovered they have been billing automatically, this outrages me it just a money racket, another web wealth generator. I despise these co that do this, a great percentage of income is form such long forgotten busy people who don't have time to manage these little details. I am not happy with luminosity! david

    1. That's a bummer, David. I think there's definitely value to Lumosity and other brain training sites (hence this article), but there are lots of businesses these days that make a lot of their money by having monthly billing set up for their services. It's even at the point where Adobe charges a user fee for their products, which is why so many fewer people consider getting Photoshop or Illustrator anymore.

  2. I find your article pretty interesting about brain games, and I, too, have seen a lot of the research about whether or not it's actually as effective for your brain as some folks would have you believe.

    As an alternative to Lumosity, I created a brain-training quest game called Puzzlewood Quests. It's a one-time fee of $2.99 from the iTunes app store or Google Play. No need for a subscription, no ads, no in-app purchases.

    I don't have any scientific research behind ,my game, and I would never claim that it definitely increases your mental acuity. I think most of that is just marketing on Lumosity's part, as well as all the other big contenders. I think at the end of the day, they're just games that require some brain power.

    1. Awesome, Dave. Puzzlewood Quests appears to be rated pretty highly. Just watched a Youtube video of someone playing a few of the puzzles. Maybe I'll give it a try. Thanks!

  3. Excellent review... I still love Lumosity and try to play it every day. For me, it's worth the money. I do believe it makes me sharper in a variety of areas, and they keep improving the games. My LPI is 1647 and I'm in the 99th percentile for my age group, out of millions of players, so that feels good. I'd probably hate it if I were below average though.