Suzanne Tobias

Brain-training games an exercise in futility

“Your brain,” the screen said, “has the power to change.”

Does it? I wondered. I downloaded the free Lumosity app and kept reading.

“Scientists have discovered that the brain can reorganize itself in response to new challenges, even through adulthood,” it said. “Guided by this research, Lumosity training is designed to unlock your full potential.”

Perfect, I thought. That is precisely what I need to unlock.

I’m not sure when my full potential was locked, who locked it or why, but another 40-something birthday came and went last week, and I figured it might be time to turn that key and get my brain in gear.

Brain-training programs such as Lumosity and Cogmed promise to improve memory, processing speed and problem-solving and even, in some cases, to stave off Alzheimer’s disease. Cogmed’s website claims that adults who use its computer-based memory games “report improved functioning in daily life.”

Moments before reading this, I had been standing at my pantry with the doors wide open, staring at the shelves and drawing a total blank about what I had gone there to fetch. (Diced tomatoes.) So sure, my daily life could use some improved functioning.

I spent the next several minutes setting up my personalized training program, telling Lumosity which areas I wanted to work on most. “It’s like a personal trainer for your brain!” the screen promised. The checklist included several categories – memory, attention, speed, flexibility and problem-solving – and more specific key areas:

“Remembering names after the first introduction.” Oh yes, I’m so bad at this. Check.

“Keeping track of several ideas at the same time.” Check.

“Maintaining focus on important tasks all day.” Check.

“Calculating figures in your head.” Check.

“Avoiding distractions.” Check.

This whole exercise, of course, was a distraction from what I really needed to be doing – writing this column – but sometimes things just work out.

I moved through the “fit test” process, swiping the iPad screen to follow moving leaves, clicking yes or no during a shape-matching test and trying to recall a pattern of squares in what seemed like a nightmarish version of the ’80s game Simon. My results looked pretty good except for the memory game, on which I scored a low C.

After calculating figures in my head, I opted to forgo the $5-a-month premium subscription and stick with the free version of the app, which allows you to play three games each day and sends a reminder to do so: “Time to exercise your brain,” says the lunchtime text message.

One evening I sat on the couch playing a particularly frustrating game called “Train of Thought,” which has inspired its own subgenre on YouTube. As I clicked the screen to switch tracks and steer trains into their appropriate tunnels, I started to sound a lot like my 15-year-old son does when he’s playing Defense of the Ancients.

“Argh!! … Wait! I didn’t mean to do that! … No, no, no! … This is bad. This is really bad.”

Jack looked at me and smiled.

“You should stop,” he said. “You’re tired.”

“I don’t want to stop,” I told him. “I want to win.”

The game had flipped a switch in my brain, all right. I had regressed all the way back to my uber-competitive, screen-addicted, 20-something self, the one who once played Tetris until 2 a.m. in a futile attempt to unlock the next level. This was nuts.

And as it turns out, a group of neuroscientists said there’s little evidence that brain-training games improve your overall cognitive fitness.

Adults who want to boost their brain power would be better off going for a walk, reading a book, learning a foreign language or doing a crossword puzzle, they said – or better yet, a variety of those things – rather than swiping screens and fretting over their score on “Speed Match Overdrive.”

Lesson learned.

Reach Suzanne Perez Tobias at 316-268-6567 or Follow her on Twitter: @suzannetobias.