Have you seen this commercial by Lumosity.com?
A few years ago I knew some basics about brain research and the possible impact on education, but I had not yet heard the word “Lumosity.” Now I know that Lumosity.com is a company that claims its games will help users expand their brain power. Its commercials are frequently aired on television, on the Internet and even on some WordPress blogs. The specific Lumosity.com commercial shown above offers an effective, persuasive presentation about the company and its services.
First, the speakers in this Lumosity commercial are attractive adults, not stuffy looking scientists and experts; they are common everyday folks that the viewers can relate to and trust, even if they are predominately young adults. Second, even if the viewers are older, they can still identify with the speakers and their hopes for change: they want to be “quicker,” “stay sharp,” “remember people’s names,” “concentrate a little better,” “learn faster,” and “just not miss stuff.” Doesn’t everyone want those things? Of course they do, either for themselves or their loved ones (children, parents). That common bond is what the makers of the commercial are hoping for in order to hook the viewers into wanting what their service claims to provide.
Third, the informational portion of the commercial is presented by a friendly upbeat masculine voice-over that assures viewers they can accomplish improved mental tasks through neuroplasticity disguised as games. My bet is that most viewers—if they have heard that term—cannot give a definition, but it sounds good, maybe even cutting edge. The makers of the commercial are looking for a fine balance: the unknown of scientific research countered with the ease of incorporating the scientific into the viewers’ lives. Accomplishing this task is easy—just join Lumosity and “discover what your brain can do.” The suggestion that one can easily harness scientific advances makes the service sound that much more appealing.
Finally, the commercial’s quick pacing gives it a modern, hip feel and the hand-drawn images that augment the pictures and show technology in action suggest the power and use of technology without being overwhelming or intimidating. Using Lumosity.com is almost like child’s play. The emphasis stays on the speakers or users of Lumosity—and they always look so content and happy. Overall, the commercial gives its viewers the impression that modern brain research can be a tool to help them improve mentally in a variety of areas.
The promise of Lumosity.com was intriguing. I was hooked enough to want to explore its service more fully. I wondered about its scientific claims, about its website and what it could offer, and what others thought about the experience. I started my exploration by visiting the Lumosity website to take advantage of the advertised free membership that would allow me to experiment directly with its learning games.
EXPLORING THE LUMOSITY WEBSITE & ITS EXTENDED MARKETING
The Lumosity.com website is very user friendly and offers the same tone and presentation approach already seen in the commercials. The people pictured on the website are everyday folks, friendly-looking, pretty. Eventually, testimonials are provided, representative of a range of ages and needs: student working to improve at school, elderly patient worried about dementia, and worker wanting to advance on the job. Everyone can identify.
The website also makes its viewers an opening promise: “Harness your brain’s neuroplasticity and train your way to a brighter life. Lumosity turns neuroscience breakthroughs into fun, effective games. Stimulate your brain today.” Even if viewers are not quite sure what neuroplasticity is, Lumosity is betting they will at least want to explore the possibility of maximizing their brain potential. It is a friendly easy hook that leads to the next step: signing up for a free trial offer.
If the viewer accepts the invitation as I did and opens a free account, then additional choices and immediate feedback are provided to personalize the service. The technology used to offer the feedback in response to choices is not new. Most of us see it at work every day: emails from Amazon.com suggesting purchases based on past buying history, CVS tracking sales to amass savings coupons, and computer games tracking high scores and time on task, to name just a few examples. But even though common, the personal touch is noticed and makes the viewer feel special.
The content being offered—like in the commercials—is something no one would say no to. Viewers are offered a menu that will help them improve in four general areas: attention, speed, flexibility, and problem solving. In each category, the viewer can select up to four sub-headings within the general topic to explore further. Under “attention” the sub-headings are focus, concentration, avoiding distractions, and improving productivity and precision. Now, what viewer is going to say, “I’m great in all those areas and do not need any improvement”? Lumosity is counting on that realization or concern by the viewers because its goal is to provide the personalized gaming routine to help each viewer improve in selected areas.
The selection process is immediate and viewers can start playing games to improve their brain functions as soon as they have made their choices. The games are fun and use the standard technology found in online gaming and computerized learning programs to keep score, note improvements, and track progress. If you play the same game twice, I bet your score will improve as mine did; such results confirm the site’s claim that their games will help you improve. References are also made to the science that supports the games, but in general terms with no complicated or technical explanations; viewers can explore the science further if they wish. This persuasive strategy lends legitimacy to the science because sources are cited and follow-up can be explored even if few viewers actually stop to scrutinize the details.
Lumosity boasts 35 million users, and I expect my free user account is part of that number. It does not surprise me that people sign up once they get to the website. The promise of new science harnessed to address each person’s individualized learning needs is strong. It is easy to sign up for a free account, and it takes only a few minutes a day of playing games, according to the advertising, to achieve positive results. The free account, however, does not give the customer access to everything. The main hook is that to really unlock your potential you need to join and get access to the full range of puzzles and games designed just for you.
On that first visit, the customer is in luck: anyone who signs up on that first visit saves 10% on the annual fee. It’s a bargain! Of course, my bet is that the discount is built into the system for every day and every viewer, so it is really just a semblance of a discount. But it makes the viewer feel lucky! Of course, since I did not sign up that first day, I was eventually offered a 35% discount after about 2 weeks. Maybe 10% off is not such a good deal for the first-time visitor.
The actual costs do not seem too bad, but of course that is relative to each person’s financial situation. The monthly cost is $14.95—so equivalent roughly to a lunch out somewhere, if you do not order dessert or a drink. The viewer can also enroll with an annual fee ($6 a month, paid at one time), a two-year fee ($4.50 a month paid at one time), or a lifetime fee ($269.96). The discount only applies to the annual fee. I did not officially sign up and pay any fees for a couple of reasons. First, I wanted to see how long the free-trial would go on, and second, I wondered how Lumosity would extend its marketing activities.
The main follow-up marketing tool came through a series of emails, 11 in all as of 1 April 2013. The first was a welcome statement, and then an offer of a 20% discount if I’d return and sign up. Once I did not sign up within the three-day time frame, then I was told via other emails that “research suggests you shouldn’t procrastinate” and later “possible links between lifetime engagement and Alzheimer’s [exist]” and “everyone experiences cognitive decline as they age.” Of course, these messages assume I have been slovenly in my thinking or at least forgetful, not that I have decided against signing up. These secondary messages play on most people’s fear of declining abilities as they age.
Another softer persuasive approach provides positive reminders that tie back to the initial promises of improved learning that everyone would appreciate: “Get a more efficient brain,” Learn “the secrets of Lumosity Superusers,” and “Train for a brighter Tomorrow.” Testimonials are given as well, referencing a range of people who have benefitted from the service in terms of age and needs. Another inducement was an increased discount from 20% to 30% and then eventually 35% off.
The emails also present snippets of the research, no detailed analyses but an increased use of scientific terms such as fluid intelligence, crystallized intelligence, and n-back tests. These terms, of course, are not really new, having been in use for decades. But the science summaries are interesting and give some proof that work on memory games can improve one’s learning potential.
GENERAL CUSTOMER FEEDBACK
I like puzzles, so the games on the Lumosity.com website are fun. For that reason alone, I could see people signing up for the service, in addition to the promise of increased mental acuity. The costs are not astronomical, and the increased discounts make the viewer feel special and wanted. However, before making a decision, it is always wise to see what complaints or praise may have surfaced about the service. I did some Internet searching matching “lumosity” with “praise,” “complaints,” and “feedback.” My search discovered several sites sharing customer feedback, good and bad.
First, I reviewed the Better Business Bureau report on Lumosity. The company (Lumos Labs, Inc.) resides in San Francisco and registered with the Better Business Bureau in February 2008; the company was started in October 2006. The report I viewed tallied the complaints for the last three years. A total of 71 complaints were registered as of 1 April 2013; all were resolved to the customer’s satisfaction except seven. The complaints fell into three categories: advertising/sales, 9; billing/collection, 35; and product/service, 27. The numbers are not huge, especially when Lumosity reports serving 35 million users. The Better Business Bureau gives Lumosity an A rating.
The other sites mimic the general information shared on the Better Business Bureau site. For the most part, these other sites shared anecdotal examples of problems and complaints. Some of the complaints went back to 2008, and some comments were positive noting the small number of complaints being raised. One example site shared 18 reviews, giving an average score of 3 out of 5 as its rating, saying overall that Lumosity was not recommended. Another site shared 14 reviews. Amina Elahi on the Viewpoints website offers a great balanced overview of what to consider when exploring signing up with Lumosity.
From the range of sites I reviewed, the main praise is the ease of use and the fun of the games. Several of the positive comments emphasize that the users can feel their mental acuity being challenged and expanded. One lawyer posted his delight with the dramatic improvements and the carry-over to the rest of his life. He concluded, “Because the only thing I’ve really been doing differently is playing Lumosity, I believe Lumosity really has made me smarter, quicker, more aware of my surroundings and sequences of events, and it has improved my memory.”
The complaints fall into several categories. A few people think signing up for Lumosity has increased the amount of spam they receive. However, the company adamantly asserts it does not sell member information. I have been signed up for several weeks on an account I rarely use and have not seen an increase in spam to that email account. One reviewer carefully parses the language on the privacy statement and notes that Lumosity reserves the right to use its customer data at its discretion. In addition, when the customer asked that his information be taken out of the system, he was told that was not possible. While Lumosity’s stated norm seems to be not selling customer information, the company reserves the right to use the data as it sees fit. A handful of others complain of technical glitches that hamper their use of the games. On my visits, I have had no technical problems.
Some users also complain that customer service is hard to reach and feedback is slow in coming. There is no phone-in customer service or online chat option to get immediate help and feedback. One problem is that if customers track down a phone number (not provided on the website) in their attempt to talk to someone, they either leave a message that is never returned or reach a voice mailbox that is constantly full. The website explains that the way to reach customer service is via an email sent from a link on the website that is tied to each customer’s account. There is no mention of how quickly someone will respond to an inquiry, but it is suggested the customer check back to see the answer. The problem seems to me not that there is no customer service but that how to access that service is not intuitive to all users and does not provide immediate feedback. In addition, the users will not even find the email link option unless they click on the right box on the website.
The primary complaints, however, focus on automatic renewals that the customers feel were unexpected; a different version is that when someone tries to cancel, the request does not go through easily. When I checked the website with this complaint in mind, it was evident that the automatic renewal aspect of every membership is not clearly stated. The customer needs to click the “get more information” boxes to get any sense of what “recurring billing” means. On other sites I frequent, the customer has a chance to check a box agreeing to automatic renewal or to the saving of payment information. Not so on Lumosity. The main assumption by the customers seems to be that a one-month trial membership would not have to be canceled; rather, an extended membership would have to be initiated. That is not the case. The customers must cancel by going into the account information area of the website—and they need to do that in a timely manner.
Again, the numbers are not huge in terms of the complaints that were reported on the various sites I stumbled upon. Still, they suggest areas of concern that a discerning customer would explore before making a decision to purchase the service. A few people complain the service is expensive, but that is relative to each person’s circumstances. An annual membership of $72 before any discounts are taken does not sound too bad. But each customer needs to decide if the service quality makes this amount a wise investment. Before finalizing that decision, customers should decide what they are hoping to get out of the membership: playing fun games or extensive improvement in their brain function. If the latter, then the science behind Lumosity needs some exploration.
WHAT ABOUT THE SCIENCE?
Lumosity readily uses the scientific terms neuroplasticity, fluid intelligence, crystallized intelligence, and n-back tests across its website and in some of its commercials. The parent company Lumos Labs, Inc. conducts some of its own research and shares that and other research through links on its website. A printable brochure is also available giving an overview of the science behind the service. The executive summary of that document explains, “We now understand that, with the right kind of stimulation and activity, the brain can dramatically change and remodel itself to become more efficient and effective in processing information, paying attention, remembering, thinking creatively, and solving novel problems.” The rest of the document summarizes a variety of research studies.
The research cited by Lumosity looks good, but I tend to be skeptical, especially when a company offers its own researched proof. Not surprisingly, I was able to find an article by one of Lumosity’s competitors—BrainHQ—that claims it utilizes the research better than Lumosity does. The article’s opening line claims that BrainHQ is “the only program to have been scientifically tested on a large-scale.”
The crux of the research looks at the difference between fluid and crystallized intelligences. Fluid intelligence—the ability to think and reason such as is used in generating problem solving strategies—has typically been said to peak in its development in late adolescence. However, crystallized intelligence—the ability to use specific knowledge and past experience in new situations—can continue developing over time. About.com offers this general review: “Both types of intelligence are equally important in everyday life. For example, when taking a psychology exam, you might need to rely of fluid intelligence to come up with a strategy to solve a statistics problem, while you must also employ crystallized intelligence to recall the exact formulas you need to use.”
For over 40 years, the general consensus that fluid intelligence could not be improved through training was the accepted norm. In April 2008, Stephanie Jaeggi and others published research that suggested the opposite: test subjects who worked on various mental activities did show an improvement in their fluid intelligence levels. In essence, training could make you smarter. However, most neuroscientists do not yet agree, and others have not yet been able to duplicate Jaeggi’s conclusions. The research is promising but does not yet offer conclusive proof; much more work is needed.
In 2012, The New York Times offered a great article explaining the concepts and the research. This article shows the promise of the current research being undertaken but concludes that more research is needed. Also, the article suggests it is likely that even if the new studies are accurate the improvement in fluid intelligence would probably not be permanent unless the training was maintained. Basically, mental training to get smarter is like working out at the gym to get stronger—you have to keep doing the exercises to retain the benefits. According to Jaeggi, “Do we think [the test subjects are] now smarter for the rest of their lives by just four weeks of training? We probably don’t think so. We think of it like physical training: if you go running for a month, you increase your fitness. But does it stay like that for the rest of your life? Probably not.”
The following BBC report gives an overview of additional research that seems to suggest that the brain games—although they look at those you purchase as independent units rather than website services—will not really make you smarter. They conclude what seems confirmed by my experience on the Lumosity website: with practice you will get better at the games. Just don’t expect that those improvements will necessarily help in any other area.
MY RECOMMENDATION: KNOW WHAT YOU ARE BUYING
I appreciate well-constructed advertising campaigns. When I taught critical thinking to college students, I would often assign students to analyze commercials or political campaigns, so the students could better see what all was being “sold” through the commercials and materials associated with the campaigns. When Lumosity.com is assessed, it becomes clear that it is selling several things through its website:
- Customers’ desire to improve their mental acuity balanced with fear or trepidation that mental acuity will decline as people age.
- Confidence in the research claims expressed by the company, but Lumos Labs, Inc. does not acknowledge any research that counters its claims or questions the long-term benefit of playing the games. Also, Jaeggi’s most promising research was published in 2008, but Lumos Labs, Inc. was established in 2006.
- A user-friendly website that provides extensive games for the customer and all the follow-through of keeping score and tracking progress.
- Round-the-clock access to over 35 fun games!
- Customer Service, but it is not obvious that access is only online via email with no assurances as to how quickly feedback will be provided.
- Easy membership pathways, but with a range of discounts depending on how long you wait to enroll. It seems clear that the quicker you sign up, the more you pay.
- Recurring billing is practiced on all membership options, but that detail is not as clear and obvious to the customers as some customers would like. It is important to explore all links for extra information and to read the fine print.
Obviously, there is a lot being sold. If you are determined to improve your mental abilities via the games and puzzles offered by Lumosity.com, check the research and remember that it is unlikely that permanent improvement is possible. To maintain what improvements you develop, you will probably need to keep playing the games via a paid annual membership. [A fact Lumosity would undoubtedly appreciate!] If you have fun playing the games and they help you relax while providing some mental challenges and improvements on isolated activities, buy a membership—just play hard-to-get for a couple weeks to get the best deal. Lumosity.com offers a great advertising campaign and fun games based on the promise of recent brain research. Before you decide, just be certain you know what all you are buying and the reality of the claims being made. Then have fun!
ME? I will probably go back to play a few games over and over on Lumosity.com via my free trial membership. There does not seem to be a limit on how long such a membership will last. I am not concerned with getting access to more than the couple of games available without a paid membership. My budget has been tight for the last several years, so $47 (the annual fee reduced by 35%) could be better used in other ways: couple lunches out with friends, gas for a trip down to LA to see my dad, and buying four or more books on Amazon.com are the first three examples that come to mind.
I do like games and recognize that practice playing mental games can improve my memory and concentration, at least for the short term, so I will play solitaire a bit more often as well as complete crossword puzzles and sodokus. There are no bells and whistles or even tracking of my progress, but they are fun and relaxing. Apparently, other computer games—even the ones the kids play for hours on end that involve developing strategies and hand-eye coordination—would help too. Crossword puzzle image
So, how about you? Have you joined or explored Lumosity? What advice would you give? What activities do you practice to stay mentally sharp?