Keeping Your Brain In Shape
After a mostly sedentary winter, most of us are flexing our muscles and getting in some much-needed exercise in the spring. Others, however, are working on a different muscle group, if you can call it that: they’re into brain fitness.
Lumosity.com, launched four years ago by San Francisco startup Lumos Labs, works as a “mental gym” by offering daily games and exercises designed to sharpen users’ mental skills. The site now welcomes 2 million visitors per month and has some 12 million members–the number doubled over the past year–and is all set to put brain training on the mainstream market.
The idea first came to Michael Scanlan in 2005, who was then a neuroscience graduate student focusing on the brain’s adaptability to different demands. At the time, mental health was largely concentrated on older generations wanting to fight memory loss. Wondering whether a broader market existed for science-based brain training, he took a leave from grad school and teamed up with Kunal Sarkar and David Drescher on a Web-based training program.
It took the trio two years to come up with the right design, exercises, and user experience. But almost instantly after its 2007 launch, Lumosity attracted several venture capitalists and raised over $3 million in funding. Today, it’s one of the fastest-growing sites on the Web, ranking in the top 1,000, according to research group Quantcast.
Lumosity was modeled after fitness clubs, where users pay a monthly fee to access equipment and have their performance tracked. This came mostly from Sarkar, who was formerly involved in 24 Hour Fitness. Lumosity members pay $15 a month (less for one-year and two-year subscriptions) to play games and access personal performance data.
The founders’ goal is to make mental fitness as important a goal as physical fitness. According to Sarkar, they are tapping onto the same trend that made 24 Hour Fitness so popular: people becoming more concerned and thus more willing to invest in their well-being.
Another San Francisco company, Posit Labs, agrees. CEO Henry Mahncke, also a neuroscientist, says that some 10 years from now, brain fitness will become routine–and we’ll look back on how we accepted brain deterioration as part of aging for decades. Mahncke says this isn’t true–science as we know it allows for the prevention of mental decline.
Posit Labs also produces mental fitness software, but is equally involved in research and the development of therapeutic programs for the mentally ill and for soldiers fresh out of war. Support for mental exercise has turned up in dozens of peer-reviewed studies, cited by Posit in its own research.
With better marketing and more funding, these companies can make brain training more popular and accessible. As Scanlan puts it, they’ve only unlocked the tip of the iceberg–and it can only get better.