Getting older? Losing your keys, your smartphone, your mind! You could save your mind with the science of Lumosity, brought to you in part by the Cardinal scientists at Stanford. Or you could just use plain old science. Like this.
Researchers recruited about 300 older adults (60 to 90 years old in good health) then randomly assigned them to 6 different treatment conditions, 5 aimed at mind saving and 1 a control. Before each condition began, all the Older Other Guys took a battery of standard measures of cognitive performance. They then went through 1 of the 6 conditions (5 treatment, 1 control) that lasted 3 months. At the end of 3 months the Older Other Guys took that same battery of cognitive performance measures. All of this took place in a local strip mall with a space called the Synapse Center.
This is called a pre-post experimental design in a one-way analysis of variance with six levels. It’s pretty good science with the largest weakness the absence of random selection of the original pool of Older Other Guys. It starts with a convenience sample of nearly 300, but then does science with that randomization to controlled conditions. Given the constraints of the practical world (it would cost a fortune to define the population then induce randomly selected Other Guys to participate) this is about the best science you can do in one project. What’s also very nice about this science is the number of treatments which provides comparison between competing variables, each assumed to have some kind of effect. Consider those treatments. Begin with 3 Productive Engagement treatments.
Participants were instructed by a professional photographer who trained them to use cameras and develop computer skills required to use professional photography software for photo editing. This condition was particularly demanding of episodic verbal memory and reasoning, given that participants had to remember many complex verbal instructions to use both the software and camera. On average, participants spent 15.84 hr (SD = 1.95) per week working on projects.
The quilt condition had the same format as the photo condition and was under the direction of a professional quilting instructor. All participants learned basic skills and progressed to complete complex, individual projects using computer-driven sewing machines. On average, participants who completed the program spent 15.93 hr (SD = 2.55) working on projects per week.
The dual condition included training in both digital photography and quilting for 6.5 weeks each; in the final week of the study, participants could complete projects in either class. The order of the two types of training was counterbalanced across participants. The instructors were the same as in the photo and quilt conditions. This condition had more breadth of stimulation but less depth in each particular domain. On average, participants spent 18.11 hr (SD = 4.48) working on projects each week.
The Other Guys are not only thinking, but They are also doing what They are thinking. Thus, each condition is not simply acquiring information, it is using that information, too, but under thoughtful guidance with external feedback and standards, plus a strong social element with that class setting.
Now, 3 control conditions for comparison.
The social condition mimicked a social club: It involved instructor-directed activities, such as cooking, playing games, watching movies, reminiscing, and going on regular field trips organized around a different topic, such as travel or history, each week. The social-group curriculum relied as much as possible on participants’ existing knowledge, with no formal knowledge acquisition. Games could be won largely by chance, with low requirements for strategy. The social activities involved no active skill acquisition. As in the productive-engagement conditions, participants in the social condition were directed to complete 5 hr of common structured activities and 10 hr or more of additional activities on-site with other group members each week. The social-condition participants spent an average of 15.90 hr (SD = 1.63) on social activities each week.
For 15 hr per week, participants performed a structured set of activities that relied on activation of existing knowledge or activities that have not been reliably linked by empirical evidence to cognitive improvement but are commonly thought of as being cognitively engaging. Each week, participants were provided with an assigned packet of materials for 5 hours’ worth of activities (i.e., documentaries, informative magazines such as National Geographic, word games relying on knowledge, and classical-music CDs) and were asked to select at least 10 hr of additional activities from the “Brain Library” (a collection of magazines, DVDs, CDs, and crossword puzzles). Participants recorded the time they spent on the activities and visited the site for a few minutes at a scheduled time each week to pick up and drop off weekly assignments. Participants spent an average of 17.22 hr (SD = 2.50) on these activities each week.
Participants in the no-treatment condition were required only to complete a weekly checklist of their daily activities, which was dropped off at the research site at a scheduled time each week.
See all the great comparisons to the Productive Engagement tasks. Start with the no-treatment control; it functions as a secular time control, just seeing the non-intervention history of Other Guys. Social control obviously gives a comparison on the social dimension; maybe just hanging out with others in a group is the Special Sauce and you don’t need new learning. Finally, the placebo condition, which could also be called the Lumosity Plus Mozart treatment; no socialization here, but lots of cognition as you listen to all the notes Wolfgang crammed into a bar of music or as you play those groovy, colorful, and active brain exercises on Lumosity-like activities.
And remember, the battery of tests on cognitive performance before and after the three months of treatment. The tests measured four types of cognition: Processing Speed (sheer quickness of accurate responding), Mental Control (maintaining focus against competing sources of information), Episodic Memory (short term memory recall), and Visuospatial Processing (spatial short term memory).
Sincerity Sidebar: I sure hope you are still paying close attention and thinking with more than the Brooks Effect. Do you see the science here? Do you get the difference between press release Tooth Fairy Tales and this work? None of these guys called a press conferences and dressed up in a lab coat. This is science, kids. And if you cannot see the difference between this and that, then you deserve the panthering you are going to get every day of your life . . . back to the opera!
Quick summary. Older adults are randomly assigned to Nothing, Placebo (Lumosityness and Mozart), Socializing, Learning Photography, Learning Quilting, or Both Photography and Quilting. They are pre and post tested on standard tests of cognitive function: Processing Speed, Mental Control, Episodic Memory (short term memory), and Visuospatial Processing (perceptual). The treatment ran 3 months and about 15 hours each week.
Now, I’m going to hit you with a Pretty Picture that shows the pre-post change for each condition on the four cognitive measures. There’s a lot going on.
Orient. The color bars represent each condition. The size of the bar represents the amount of change. You see four panels, one for each cognitive measure. The horizontal lines with asterisks indicate statistically significant difference between the marked conditions. The y axis (the vertical of the graph) is the standardized change, the d effect size where Small is .20, Medium is .50 and Large is .80.
Begin by looking at the results for the Placebo condition which was essentially Lumosity plus Mozart CDs; it’s the orange bar on the extreme right for each panel. Notice that this condition is never the best and usually the worst at improving any kind of cognitive function. Note in particular that the Placebo treatment is the worst at Episodic Memory or short term memory, the key element in cognition.
Now look at Mental Control (top right panel). While all conditions showed a gain, no condition made a larger difference. Just being directed toward some kind of activity helped all the Other Guys improve their ability to focus on information even against a noisy and distracting background.
The primary good news is with gains in Episodic Memory (short term recall) for the information active condition of Photography and Quilting. In particular, the Photography condition shows a near Medium+ Windowpane gain in short term memory function which I find astonishing. The Quilting condition had a Small Windowpane effect and when combined with Photography, it actually reduced the short term memory advantage of the Photography training.
More generally you can see that the effects of any condition on any kind of cognition tend to be Small Windowpanes. You would need a statistician to detect these changes. Stated another way, if you watched any treatment group do a task and also watched the control group do the same task, you’d have trouble guessing which group did what. That’s a Small effect. It is there, but it is a change you have to count with fingers rather than a change you can see.
While the results on short term memory for the Photography training are Medium and obvious and statistically significant (!!!), I’m still wary. The tests are verbal which means the Other Guys read or hear a list of words then have to say or write them back either immediately or after some delay. A Medium gain here, especially with an average age of 70, is really strong.
I’d be worried about a detail like miscoding a test result for a couple of people or maybe just having a couple of outliers in the Photography group who had extremely low pretest scores and then woke up during the 3 months. Each condition had about 30 participants and outliers can really pop the mean. Consider a procedure called Winsorizing. If you dropped the highest and lowest scores in each condition and re-ran the analysis, the Episodic Memory would probably still improve in the Photography condition, but more like a Small Windowpane and not that Medium effect size. Stated another way, I’d really like to see the size of this effect replicated in other samples.
Past my Professor Poopypants pooposity, please see all the wonderful science in this detailed effort. This is work that makes a serious contribution to the literature, especially on interventions with cognition and the aging mind and body.
It’s important to note that highly active and involving tasks for the Photography and Quilting conditions produced more benefit than mere socializing and especially that FauxItAll Lumosity persuasive science, some from Stanford. Good grief, quilting can hardly be considered a revolutionary new activity made possible through apps ‘n iGizmos in the iPostModern World. Can anything be more old fashioned, your Great Grandmother’s Oldsmobile? People have been quilting for hundreds of years and it runs at least as good as Brain Games. Yeah. Technology changes everything.
You techie adherents may find joy with the Photography condition because it required the use of computers and software like Photoshop . . . which has been around now since 1990. Come on. We’re talking the PC revolution here not SM2.0 with Big Data and Big Analytics.
And that’s another reason I’m wary with the Episodic Memory results for the Photography training. That training is highly visual and procedural and is not word training in the sense of studying grammatical forms or poetry construction. You might obtain similar gains with a Furniture Making Condition. Perhaps it is working in a new world of highly structured concepts and actions that works here?
I’d be curious to compute the caloric expenditure for each condition. A lot of exercise research has demonstrated practical improvements in cognitive function from running or lifting or biking. The mind begins with the brain and if you work the brain with exercise, it maintains existing function and when restarted, exercise can activate old function. Perhaps the Photography condition required participants to get more exercise while taking pictures?
And, there goes Professor Poopypants, pooping all over the place. Let’s get out of here before we get pooped into oblivion.
1. This is science. Not persuasive science. Just science.
2. Moving the body and the mind improves cognitive performance. Not a lot of improvement, but it is improvement.
3. This took 3 months and 15 hours a week. Most effects are Small. Do you really believe that Lumosity a few minutes a day every now and then can have any practical effect? Heck even Lumosity with a lovely Mozart piano sonata for 3 months and 15 hours a week ran even with a pack of little old ladies and gentlemen in the quilting circle.
4. For you panthers working the jungle of aging Other Guys, you can still see the good news in the results. That Placebo condition did show pre-post gains. Put that in your next PowerPoint or Flash or YouTube. Independent researchers prove that Lumosity enhances your Episodic Memory, Mental Control, and Visuospatial Memory! Tell the truth! Just not the whole truth!
Finally. Read the paper. It’s good, hard work.
Denise C. Park, Jennifer Lodi-Smith, Linda Drew, Sara Haber, Andrew Hebrank, Gérard N. Bischof, and Whitley Aamodt. The Impact of Sustained Engagement on Cognitive Function in Older Adults: The Synapse Project. Psychological Science, first published on November 8, 2013
P.S. The best science to date on maintaining cognitive function across aging is . . . sorry . . . physical activity. Yeah, you can learn a new skill at the Synapse Center or fake it with a Brain Game, but if you want to keep your head on straight as long as possible, run, baby, run.