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Can Video Games Train Your Brain?

by Katie Moritz
November 30, 2017 | Our Future

It wasn't that long ago that advertisements for Lumosity, a brain training games subscription service, were all over Spotify and on TV, suggesting that playing their games could help improve your brain function.

Then, the Federal Trade Commission hit the company behind Lumosity, Lumos Labs, with a $2 million fine for making unsubstantiated promises about the games in advertisements. Promises that playing the games would "delay memory decline; protect against dementia and Alzheimer’s disease; improve school, work, and athletic performance; and reduce the effects of everything from ADHD to post-traumatic stress disorder," the FTC wrote in a blog post about Lumosity.

Video Games pbs rewire
Source: University of Rochester

According to the FTC, Lumos Labs just didn't have the scientific research to back up those claims.

Today, Lumosity's website says scientists have done research on its games, tracking the cognitive health of more than 4,000 people, half of which were regularly playing Lumosity games. The other half were doing crossword puzzles.

"After 10 weeks, the Lumosity group improved more than the crosswords group on an aggregate assessment of cognition," Lumosity's homepage states. The company plans to study the effect of the games on users' ability to navigate everyday tasks.

However, new research by the University of Pennsylvania suggests that if you want to train your brain, you might as well do it by playing your favorite video game. And even that might not be doing too much to help you.

Might not help, but it doesn't hurt

Video Games pbs rewire
Source: Medical Daily

To figure out if there's any notable difference between the two activities, researchers asked more than 60 young adults to follow Lumosity's regimen for 30 minutes a day, five days a week for 10 weeks, and the same number of people to play online video games on the same schedule. The participants took cognitive function tests before and after the 10-week period. (This was part of the researchers' work to see if strengthening cognitive function could help people kick smoking habits—pretty cool.)

Both groups did show improvement from the first test to the second, but the ones who did Lumosity didn't perform any better than the ones who played video games.

Perhaps most amusing of all, people who took two cognitive tests 10 weeks apart but didn't do any training activity in between also showed improvement at the same rate, just from taking the test twice.

So, does playing games improve your brain function? Maybe not. But obviously there's some disagreement on the subject. At the very least, you can tell your mom not to worry that all the video games you play are damaging your ability to think. Some have even been shown to reduce stress and the effects of PTSD.

Katie Moritz
Katie Moritz is Rewire's senior editor and a Pisces who enjoys thrift stores and pho. Reach her via email at [email protected] or on Twitter @katecmoritz.
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