Training Your Brain to Help Science

There’s not a whole lot I can tell you about this story that Science News hasn’t already covered in their piece, but I couldn’t help talking about it. It’s too unexpected to pass up (not to mention a little terrifying, but we’ll get to that). Neuroscientists are finding they have access to a ready-made dataset of unprecedented size, for free. That’s right, for free. Where is this monstrous dataset you ask? A website called Lumosity, yeah that Lumosity, with the TV ads where ridiculously good looking people talk about wanting to train their brains and maintain mental acuity and whatnot.

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Source: http://www.lumosity.com

Lumos Labs, the group that created Lumosity’s, offers the performance data of the more than 51 million Lumosity users, for free, through their academic outreach arm, the Human Cognition Project. The data is mostly used by Lumosity’s own people to help streamline and improve their product, a mixture of games and science said to help improve memory and cognitive processes, though Science News is quick to point out that these claims are still subject to criticism (see this, another one of their stories). More diverse interests are taking notice of Lumosity’s considerable data wealth though, as studies covering topics as diverse Alzheimer’s, cross-cultural construction of emotional response and memory, and the effects of anesthesia on cognitive faculties have begun cropping up, all making use of Lumosity’s extensive records. Their product allows for a customizable and apparently fun means for researchers to monitor a huge population through specially designed tests and games.

The data is a bit sloppy, what with its reliance on self-evaluation and the possibility of multiple users on one account, not to mention its bias towards relatively high income people with an interest in neuroscience. But researchers are finding that across such a massive number of subjects, the jagged edges tend to smooth themselves out into a fairly consistent and reliable body of information. All in all, Lumosity’s work promises to provide an interesting set of cognitive data for neuroscientists to pick through on a scale not yet seen anywhere. Other large datasets are growing too, with the NIH and others working to compile large, complex, and comprehensive banks of information on the human brain. That being said none of these approach the 160 countries and over 2 billion minutes of game time that Lumosity has managed to gather.

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The Human Cognition Project acts serves to connect Lumosity’s immense databases with academic research projects (Source: http://www.lumosity.com)

Now I said this was a little terrifying before right? It’s kind of a small thing, but how aware are Lumosity’s users of being studied? I say it’s small only because I’m sure there’s a clause in the terms of use, or a statement somewhere about how Lumosity owns all the users’ performance data and can dispense it as they see fit, but to what degree can users stay anonymous and simply train their brain. It’s very cool that scientists are managing to retrofit a consumer product into a research tool, but it seems strange that wanting to improve your mental fitness has to go hand in hand with being a test subject, as if you can’t do one without agreeing to the other. Most people who sign up probably don’t mind, and I doubt I’d care if I were ever to give it a try, but I’m sure there’s some subset of the population who would rather opt out, but may not have the option. I understand using the data to help optimize your own product, and I applaud the effort to expand our body of knowledge about the human mind, but there should be some concern for the user’s right to privacy, and options that would allow someone to use the service without having to participate in third party research (for whatever reason they may not want to).

Original Article:

https://www.sciencenews.org/article/global-neuro-lab

 

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