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Brain-Train to Fight Brain Drain

Katie gets a cognitive workout after a month of brain training with Lumosity's app and website.

Is your brain running at its best?

Companies that make brain-training software programs and apps would love it if you had doubts, and they’re in luck: No one necessarily knows how well his or her brain can work.

For the last month, I’ve put my own head to the test so you didn’t have to. I’ve been using Lumosity, a popular training program from Lumos Labs Inc., to see if I can improve my cognitive functions like memory, speed, attention, flexibility and problem solving. I tested the free Lumosity app on an iPhone, then upgraded to the paid version of the app and its corresponding website for $15 monthly. Annual subscriptions usually cost around $80, but regular promotions, like one I was offered, cost about $52 for a year of Lumosity.

The results are in: My memory, speed and flexibility are in good condition, but my attention needs work, which is probably a common issue in our society of distracting gadgets. (I blame technology and the inane journalists who write about it.) I can honestly say that I felt like I was getting a bit sharper after using Lumosity for four weeks straight, and my personalized assessment reflected this.

Individual Lumosity results are tied to one’s Brain Performance Index, or BPI, which is a measure of cognitive performance based on how well one plays brain games.

Like dancing to burn calories, several of Lumosity’s games make it easy for you to forget that you’re giving your brain a workout. Eagle Eye, for example, was playful. It tests attention and field of view by asking you to identify the on-screen space where a bird briefly appears, then identify the correct number that simultaneously flashed on-screen in another area. Another game, called Chalkboard Challenge, was more work. It took me back to my fourth-grade math class, where the teacher had us stand at the blackboard and race one another to see who finished problems first.

Lumosity is just one of several similar programs, including CogniFit and Posit Science’s BrainHQ. These programs are helpful for people of all ages, and findings from a study published this week show that older users reaped benefits in reasoning and processing speeds for as long as 10 years after taking brain-training courses.

While playing the free version of Lumosity, you’ll be allowed to play three games a day, and completed games are illuminated in a Trivial Pursuit-like pie icon that has five slices; two of the pie slices aren’t available unless you have a paid subscription. Subscribers also get additional games and personalized performance tracking, as well as the ability to play any of Lumosity’s games at any time.

After initially using only Lumosity’s iPhone app, I switched over to the website version, and I was surprised by the noticeable difference in my performance. In some instances, like the Memory Match game, I didn’t do as well with a mouse and keyboard as I did on my touchscreen iPhone. The game is a combination of Milton Bradley’s Simon and the card game Memory: Colored tiles appear and then disappear, and you must tap where you think the tiles were. On the touchscreen, my two thumbs proved faster than the mouse.

Certain games are optimized for the website, like Eagle Eye, which uses a full-screen view to display the trees and sky where birds appear. A Lumosity spokeswoman said that the company is optimizing many of the currently online-only games to also work on mobile. In addition to the more than 40 games available in Lumosity, the company is developing about one game a month, so users are unlikely to get bored with its selection.

But something important didn’t transfer to the website when I started using it after weeks of exclusively training on the Lumosity app: My game-score history. As a competitive person, I naturally wanted to beat my last best score every time I played one of these games. On the app, my vast history of highest scores usually appears in a list at the end of each game I play, including my latest game, so I can see where my last score ranks. Score history won’t transfer from the website to the app, either.

The spokeswoman for Lumosity said that the company intentionally separates app and website score history, since touchscreen input is different from website input with a keyboard and mouse. But I still wished I could see my score history from both devices in the same place.

Android users will be disappointed to hear that Lumosity is currently only available for iOS and the Web. Lumos Labs plans to release its Android app by June.

In its app form, Lumosity felt less formal and more enjoyable, since I could train my brain on the go. I opened the app and trained during rides on the subway, baby feedings at 3 am, cross-country flights, and while waiting to meet someone who showed up late. The app’s Pause icon in the top-left corner let me stop play at any time, like when the person next to me on the subway had to get off and I had to stand up.

One tip: You may be distracted by your iOS device’s banner notifications during games, as they can appear at any time. If you want a more distraction-free experience, switch your device to Airplane Mode.

My favorite Lumosity game was Brain Shift, which tests one’s flexibility, and is designed to help you with task switching, described as adapting to changing circumstances and switching from one goal to another.

If your goal is to try for a sharper brain, Lumosity is well worth using.

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