For years, San Francisco-based game developer Lumos Labs has led people to believe that their signature app, Lumosity, could make them smarter and impede the progress of memory loss, dementia, and even Alzheimer’s disease. It racked up over 60 million users who believed this to be true mostly because they hadn’t heard otherwise.
Yesterday, they did hear otherwise – from the sobering voice of science.
Or, more accurately, from the absence of science. Even more accurately, from the Federal Trade Commission.
Lumosity’s claims, as determined by the FTC, have absolutely no basis in fact, a conclusion neuroscientists reached over a year before yesterday’s ruling. “Lumosity preyed on consumers’ fears about age-related cognitive decline,” said Jessica Rich, Director of the FTC’s Bureau of Consumer Protection, and “simply did not have the science to back up its ads.”
Those ads, with which you’re probably familiar, were extensive. Lumosity promoted their service across the entire media landscape, from TV spots on CNN, Fox News, and the History Channel, to music streaming services like National Public Radio, Pandora, Sirius XM, and Spotify, and even through Google AdWords by targeting keywords related to memory, cognition, dementia, and Alzheimer’s disease.
Further charlatanism came in the form of bribed consumer testimonials, which were solicited through contests that promised free iPads, lifetime Lumosity subscriptions, and a round-trip to San Francisco.
As the app continued to grow in popularity, the number of scientists speaking out against brain training grew in tandem.
Citing a study published in Developmental Psychology, Michigan State University Department of Psychology Professor David Z. Hambrick wrote in September 2013 that “there was no convincing evidence that brain training improves intelligence or academic skills… brain training makes people better at the training task, but not much else.”
So somewhere along the way, Lumosity adjusted its language to reflect that exact point, distancing itself from more substantial claims. Analysis of our database shows that just 10-15 minutes of Lumosity training per day can lead to improvements in Lumosity over time, now reads a message at the start of the program.
You could replace “Lumosity” with “Easy-Bake Oven,” or literally anything, in that sentence and it becomes no less true, which is testament to the meaninglessness of the app’s utility when it’s bound by fact.
All this positions Lumosity just a few scam tactics away from promising users they can earn $188/hour working from home – while simultaneously boosting brain function! – which earned them a federal court order by the FTC yesterday seeking a $50 million judgement. Lumos Labs, the company behind Lumosity, will settle the FTC’s deceptive advertising charges for $2 million.
It’s the highest profile crackdown so far on the brain training industry, which exists somewhere between deceit and the unknown. One commenter on a Science Magazine article titled ‘Neuroscientists speak out against brain game hype’ from October 2014 captured the essence of this abyss:
Which is to say, research on the subject of brain training is decidedly inconclusive and it could take years for researchers to reach a scientifically-backed consensus on the merit of games like Lumosity.
Until then, I suggest sticking to crosswords.