Lux et Veritas et Lumosity: How to Strengthen Your Brain Without Really Trying

Fun and folly in the new digital learning economy.
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(Icon: Lumosity)

(Icon: Lumosity)

There is a fearful symmetry to the history of Western education.

For many hundreds of years, we used stone or wooden or waxen tablets to take notes, solve math problems, write dirty poetry, and perform all the other secretarial tasks associated with learning.

Then, for a few hundred years, students worked on paper, and then tablets were back—shinier now, fitted with geolocators, and capable of streaming pornography. Sic transit gloria mundi; and, before long, it returns.

It is useful to think of the Romans when we consider modern tablet-based pedagogy not least because the teachers of the Republic and Empire believed, if not so pathologically as we, in the principle that learning is more effective when it is fun. Lucretius sweetened his pedagogy through song (wormwood, with a ring of honey on the cup); Horace's schoolmaster dispensed tiny cookies when his students learned their ABCs. Humanist scholars of the Renaissance considered ludi, or games, to be central to education. In this same tradition, Friar Reginald Foster taught his dynastic course in spoken Latin at the Vatican by assigning not homework but ludi domestici: “homegames.”

Wider access to education? All to the good. But the enrichment of hack, for-profit colleges is not—nor is the insulting suggestion that men and women will only learn if we distract them, like gassing a patient before major surgery.

Learning is eased by play, no doubt. In the new century, however, we have taken this principle (a fine one, as far as it goes) and made it the center of our online learning economy.

Put another way: America now enjoys an industry dedicated to tricking people into learning.

Let us look first at the commercials, in which the Internet's bounty of knowledge becomes, by implication, a rebuke to the very notion of dialectical learning (seminar, debate, etc.). “This was my daddy's classroom,” a boy beams, waving an off-brand tablet before the camera. “My mom didn't go to school here,” a girl says with precocious flippancy, as the camera zooms back from her innocent face to reveal (the horror!) an empty lecture hall. The off-brand tablet appears again—a sanctuary from the apparent hellscape known as communal learning. Perhaps needless to say, the ad is not for a tablet or even software, but for a private online university with a terrifying rate of attrition and a predatory market strategy.

Up next: an ad for a website where you can play video games that make you smarter through “the science of neuroplasticity.” You're working your brain out, “but in a way that just feels like games!” No classrooms, no teachers, we don't need no thought control, etc. Admirable revolutionary ideals, except when they're backed by an assumption of laziness, which inevitably they are.

These and other blithe refrains are actually doing something rather dangerous—conflating democracy in learning with fun in learning. That conflation, by its nature, cheapens the very ideas of learning and curiosity. The pitch of a for-profit Web college goes like this: “College is boring and a scam. Here's how to do it the smart and easy way through the magic of technology.” Meanwhile, the business model of a company such as Lumosity goes something like this: “Learning sucks. Here's how to trick yourself into thinking you aren’t learning.”

Wider access to education? All to the good. But the enrichment of hack, for-profit colleges is not—nor is the insulting suggestion that men and women will only learn if we distract them, like gassing a patient before major surgery.

Besides the insult to our intelligence, there is a strain of classic charlatanism. “Lumosity” is a euphonious and nonsensical word, a contracted form of “luminosity” (the quality of brilliance or illumination) with a verbal echo of “velocity” (“get smarter fast!”). The company emphasizes the brain as a muscle that requires regular training—training that only Lumosity's brain-games can provide. In fact, while one or two smaller studies have suggested that “brain-games” may sharpen the grey cells, the broader consensus among neuroscientists is that gambits such as Lumosity and CogMed are, in essence, elegant swindles.

Last October, Science reported that over 70 major neuroscientific researchers had signed a letter refuting claims made by Lumosity and CogMed. In the wake of that letter, Gizmodo's Katie Knibbs poked around and declared that “Lumosity's Brain Games Are Bullshit.” The Guardian, too, registers skepticism:

A 2010 study by the neuroscientist Dr. Adrian Owen, which tracked 11,000 adults over a six-week computer-based training regime designed to improve reasoning, memory, planning, visuospatial skills and attention, reported benefits in executing the tasks themselves but little general advantage in other areas.

Owen's experiment and conclusions fit very well with my own experience on Lumosity. You begin with a series of assessment-games that gauge your percentiles in planning, concentration, and reasoning (I suspect but cannot prove that these assessments are designed to lowball you, thus suggesting that you really need Lumosity). Then, you start “training,” and the games basically get more and more boring. The most exciting one involves re-directing train tracks so that the green train reaches the corresponding station without first picking up passengers from (say) the red station. The games have not altered my cognition in any perceptible way, though (as Owen might have predicted) I did get pretty good at playing Lumosity.

Lumosity isn't really selling the science of neuroplasticity; Lumosity has monetized the belief in neuroplasticity. The company's spokespeople will disagree, but they're already enjoying a client base of 70 million people, so I can't imagine they're worried about losing my business.

Lumosity and its like will continue to hawk the idea that learning in itself (unsweetened, without Flash animations) is anathema or unpleasant. The truth is this: No one has to choose between play and learning. The early humanists knew this just as today's gamers do: “What's the problem,” Erasmus asks Thomas More, “if scholars take a little time for play, especially if their japes lead to something a bit more serious?” Oscar Wilde, writing from Reading Gaol to that bounder Bosie, castigated his former lover for never achieving “the Oxford manner”—“which I take to mean the ability to play gracefully with ideas.” (Wilde would likely have objected to Lumosity on two fronts: its garishness, and its pandering imposture.)

We are more and more obsessed with quantifying the utility of our education, our intelligence. Given student debt and a slow economic recovery, that obsession is understandable. What is more perplexing is why so many spend $120 or more each year for the dubious privilege, and yet more dubious benefits, of interactive trainspotting. I'm all for fun and have no objections to video games. But these games aren't even fun. Better to play Snood or Sudoku or do a crossword puzzle or read an e-book, or—now that I think of it—crack open an old calculus primer. Those lines were so satisfying. Such playful grace—such fearful symmetry.

The Classroom is a regular series on the issues facing both students and teachers of higher education.

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