The acid-yellow spheres on the screen do not look anything like the linebackers that Atlanta Falcons quarterback Matt Ryan tries to avoid each week. Nor do they resemble an English Premier League soccer player streaking down the field, or a puck hurtling across the ice in a National Hockey League game. If anything, they look like finely sheared tennis balls.
The beauty in the design of NeuroTracker — the video game aimed at heightening cognitive agility the way lifting dumbbells develops muscles — is allegedly its simplicity. Just by asking the eyes to track spheres as they bound around a 3-D screen, athletes can prepare their brains to perform in a way that no other film room could replicate.
At least, that was Jocelyn Faubert’s goal when he created NeuroTracker out of his optometry research laboratory at the University of Montreal in 2009. He made it in the mold of Lumosity, the wildly successful brain-gaming app. Instead of targeting baby boomers, however, Faubert designed NeuroTracker for the sports arena.
Faubert calls these underappreciated cognitive skills the “gymnastics of the brain.” But until NeuroTracker, there had been little evidence of a good way to isolate and enhance those skills away from the practice field.
“It forces you to use certain networks — attention-based networks, memory networks, motion-processing networks,” Faubert said of NeuroTracker.
Critics, however, call the program digital snake oil. They believe that sports teams, desperate to gain any edge, might be buying into a gimmick.
“I have to be extremely skeptical of any training program that promotes the development of these generic visual, perceptual, cognitive functions,” said A. Mark Williams, chairman of the Department of Health, Kinesiology and Recreation at the University of Utah.
Still, the program has spread to more than 550 elite training facilities around the globe, representing a vast and diverse sporting landscape. Ryan, who is second in the NFL in passing yards and touchdowns this season, said he trained with NeuroTracker at least three times a week.
“I use it all year-round,” said Ryan, a top contender for the NFL’s Most Valuable Player award this season.
Manchester United quietly spent $80,000 to install a NeuroTracker setup in its facility. U.S. Soccer has tested more than 7,000 youth players on it since 2014. The same program is used by hockey teams including the Vancouver Canucks, and by the IMG Academy, where football prospects train before the NFL draft.
NeuroTracker’s parent company, CogniSens, also just started selling a cloud-based, slightly different version of the program, called NuTrain, to regular consumers for $229 a year.
But as it grew into a sort of performance panacea, the number of skeptics has grown, too, including those who point out that a carefully executed placebo might produce the same resounding reviews — only to suffer when the effect ultimately wears off.
The critics contend that it is the game’s simplicity that allows users to perceive results that might not always be there, filling the void the way a minimalist painting can inspire deep introspection.
The incredulity is tied to the fissures in the foundation of the brain-gaming industry, which has faced mounting scrutiny about what many believe to be dubious claims, scant scientific evidence and deceptive marketing.
In seven years of expansion, NeuroTracker has grown into the most successful brain-training game in sports. But the fundamental question remains as present as ever: Does it really work?
Eight numbered spheres bounce randomly around a cube, which the player sees through 3-D glasses. At the outset, four of the spheres will glow red, indicating that those are the spheres to keep an eye on. But they will be red for only a second. Momentarily they turn yellow again. After eight seconds, a prompt asks you to recall the numbers of the spheres that had once been red.
It is no more intricate than a three-card shuffle performed on a street corner. But the task of following four fast-moving objects simultaneously is a remarkably rigorous test, challenging visual and perceptual capabilities, and such cognitive systems as spatial awareness, concentration and working memory.
Jean Castonguay, a corporate lawyer with a background in managing startups, caught wind of it and saw a business opportunity. He offered to move the program out of the laboratory and into the marketplace.
In fact, with a professional setup costing $6,000, NeuroTracker boasts that in only 12 training sessions lasting five minutes, athletes will begin to notice sustainable benefits to their on-field performance.
“They will see it in their play,” said Castonguay, who is the lead investor in the company.
But the notion that practice at one task could effectively bolster abilities in another — called transfer — has long been disputed. In 1906, the psychologist Edward L. Thorndike found that rigorous practice helped students’ ability to estimate the areas of rectangles, but it did not help them estimate the areas of other shapes. Another century’s worth of research has continued to reshape and redefine, expand and restrict this line of thinking.
With NeuroTracker, Faubert has made some effort to rebut this, but not everybody has been persuaded. Williams, at the University of Utah, challenged the notion that tracking bouncing objects in a simulation could train or quantify anything other than a person’s ability to track bouncing objects in a simulation.
“I’ve never seen a soccer player chasing multicolor balloons around on the field,” Williams said. “It’s just not what soccer players do.” What soccer players do, he said, is read patterns of play, anticipate what might happen next based on movements of teammates and opponents, and identify familiar sequences as they unfold.
Faubert wrote an in email that perceptual-cognitive transfer is one of the “hard questions to answer” in sports, saying it is difficult to form “a broad conclusion on the efficiency or inefficiency of the training.” He added that “we and others have been building evidence for the fact that it does play a role, but many scientific questions remain.”
Rob Gray, an associate professor in the Perception and Action Lab at Arizona State University, who hosts a popular podcast on sports-science topics, fretted that NeuroTracker removes too much of any sporting context to show the type of drastic transfer needed to go from excelling inside your living room to scoring more goals in the Premier League.
“One of the big problems I have is that NeuroTracker’s motion is completely random and unstructured,” Gray said. “The whole point of watching a basketball scene if you’re a point guard is that it is structured. Picking up that structure that’s specific to your sport is highly important.”
That so many successful teams and savvy athletes, like Ryan, would swear by NeuroTracker does not come as a total surprise.
“If you practice anything long enough, you will get better at it,” Williams said. “If you get better at it, it improves self-confidence, self-esteem, so you feel as if you’re improving. This is essentially a placebo effect.”