The Latest Tech Trend in Self-Improvement Can Change Your Life


"How do you know if you have ADHD?” I Googled. My brain hadn’t been working properly, and I was beating myself up about my inability to focus. What was wrong with me? Why was I so incompetent?

A few years ago, I tried a website called Lumosity. Its creators promised games that could improve cognitive abilities, including attention, memory, problem solving, and mental flexibility. Back then, I decided not to spend $15 per month or $7 for a one-year subscription to the site. But now, with my busy freelance schedule and inability to write a 150-word blog post without stopping to check my email, send an instant message, and pet my cat, I felt desperate to focus. I logged back on to Lumosity.

The San Francisco-based startup has exploded to include 20 million users and has picked up press in everything from Shape to The Wall Street Journal. Its popularity is parcel to an idea that’s getting a lot of buzz lately—something called gamification, or the use of digital games to improve skills and set and meet goals. Apps like Lumosity—including Chore Wars, EpicWin, and SF-based SuperBetter—take aim at real-world problems, from cleaning up around the house to losing weight, overcoming injuries, and ending world hunger. According to M2 Research, gamification was a $100 million industry in 2011. It is estimated to grow to $2.8 billion by 2016.

Local gamer Jane McGonigal—author of Reality Is Broken: Why Games Make Us Better and How They Can Change the World—hopes to cash in on the gamification industry. Released in March, SuperBetter is the result of, and she thinks part of the cure for, a traumatic brain injury suffered by McGonigal in 2009. She couldn’t read, write, or use a computer. Feeling hopeless, even suicidal, she turned her recovery into a game. She created a secret identity, Jane the Concussion Slayer, and targeted the triggers that made her symptoms worse—known on SuperBetter as Bad Guys.

After just a few days of playing, McGonigal felt better. After a year, she was almost fully recovered. Thinking she was onto something, McGonigal collaborated with the Center for Disease Control and the U.S. Army to develop her healing game into one that could target an array of physical challenges, including asthma, diabetes, obesity, and social anxiety.

According to countless scientific papers, including a 2011 study by Mensa Research Journal, games like those promoted by Lumosity and SuperBetter can change your brain for the better. In a study performed at the University of South Wales, researchers saw significant improvement in the sustained visual attention of patients with mild cognitive deficits (which often precede Alzheimer’s) after playing Lumosity games. Other studies have shown that a healthy resilience to life’s challenges—the aim of the games on SuperBetter—is the ultimate key to happiness.

If it worked for the patients in South Wales, I assumed it could work for me, hoping to improve my diminishing focus with Lumosity and to stop beating myself up for perceived shortcomings through SuperBetter. Still, I never expected profound improvements in my overall cognitive abilities and happiness quotient.

Lumosity was immediately addictive. I dove in with an attention game called Eagle Eye. A number and a bird flash on your screen simultaneously and then disappear before prompting you to remember the number and click your cursor in the spot where the bird appeared. As you progress, the game moves faster. My scores at first were terrible, but I was soon hooked. With practice, I improved quickly. The “attention” category became one of my best. It sounds crazy, but I credit Eagle Eye for making me a more efficient writer. Lumosity’s math-based problem-solving games, however, are my nemeses. I’ve managed to improve my score by only a few points—I’m in the 24th percentile. Pathetic.

Comparing yourself to others may not be a recipe for happiness, but Lumosity’s charts, which rank you against other users, brought out a competitive side I didn’t know I had. I came back to the site daily, often several times, hoping to increase my brain profile index (BPI), which measures cognitive performance based on the analysis of more than 13 million game results and gives you a score based on attention, flexibility, memory, and problem solving. My BPI doubled in one month, which was so gratifying that I signed up for a two-year subscription. Who knows? Maybe it’s all a placebo effect. Either way, my increased focus, confidence, and optimism feel real.

Thanks to SuperBetter, I no longer beat myself up too much about my terrible math skills. To get started, I chose Frida Kahlo as my avatar. I admire her self-confidence, creativity, and ability to overcome hardships. The game instructed me to write about three recent challenges. This was an easy task since, after cavalierly quitting a good job as an editor a few years ago, I have been laid off more than once and have been turned down for a coveted job or three. I was then asked to write down what I had told myself following each disappointment. Finally, I was instructed to read an article about three categories of self-sabotage: personalization (it’s all my fault), universality (this kind of thing always happens to me), and permanence (it will always be this way).

It turns out that, according to me, everything is 100-percent my fault. So I took SuperBetter’s advice to consider alternative explanations—perhaps they really were promoting from within or that layoff really was due to budget cuts. I even looked in a “friendly 
mirror” and hugged myself. It is absolutely corny. But it worked. It turns out that imagining everything in the world happens because of my inadequacies is self-centered. Frida Kahlo would never do that. Shit. There I go again. I am a work in progress.

KRISTEN  PHILIPKOSKI is a freelance writer and blogger at Stylenik.

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