As I find the hidden words lurking within the grid, the Wordbrain app shows me a picture of a brain gently pulsing and getting bigger. I can almost feel myself getting more intelligent; the app even reports that my current "brain size" is 2,116, which I think you'll agree is pretty impressive. 2,116 of what? I've no idea, but the game nevertheless manages to instil the feeling that playing it is somehow good for me, without making any direct claims about its impact on my cognitive processes.
Judging by this week's events, that's probably a sensible approach. Lumos Labs, the maker of Lumosity, a "brain training" suite of games, has just been fined $2m by the US Federal Trade Commission (FTC) to settle claims over deceptive advertising. For years the company has implied that its hugely popular games can improve cognitive performance, protect against age-related decline and, in one alarming case, help reduce the side effects of chemotherapy. "Lumosity simply did not have the science to back up its ads," said an FTC spokesperson.
Our willingness to believe that games with the word "brain" in the title can somehow boost our intelligence and keep us alert is an astonishing thing to behold. Lumosity has ridden high in the app charts for years, with millions of downloads and many thousands of subscribers paying anything from $14.95 per month up to $299.95 for a lifetime subscription. The world of self-help has, of course, had something of a predatory reputation ever since lifestyle gurus discovered that wearing a headset and bounding enthusiastically around an arena was a good money-making strategy, and tech has been following in their footsteps; all kinds of apps are now trying to persuade us that we can be better, and that they hold the secret.
In the case of cognitive fitness, however, it's hard to prove that the games improve anything other than our ability to play those particular games. (In the same way that diet pills can only guarantee a 100 per cent increase in your intake of diet pills.) We've seen this before; 10 years ago, my mum told me how she had started keeping her brain active by playing "brain training" games on a Nintendo DS, but in 2009 Which? magazine consulted scientists and reported that there was little evidence that the games had any functional impact on everyday life. Nintendo never made any claims for the games beyond them being "enjoyable and fun", but Lumos Labs evidently got carried away when it saw how much we wanted to believe in them. The FTC, however, had no such faith. "There's no evidence that [brain-training] transfers to any real-world setting," it concluded. Such games might keep our brains active, but if studies are to be believed, only as much as reading. Or watching documentaries.
Perhaps evidence will surface one day. Lumos Labs has been forbidden from repeating its claims only until such time as "competent and reliable" scientific evidence comes along to back them up. But while we wait, our enthusiasm for self-improvement software will probably keep snowballing regardless. New games that profess to improve our happiness, relationships and mental health seem to launch every week, and we download them in huge numbers, because we want to be better than we are. I can understand that. But let's be wary of pictures of brains, whether they're glowing medical scans offered as proof of cognitive improvement, or wobbly cartoons. That's all they are. Just pictures of brains.
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