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June 10, 2012

Brain teaser: Can you name the eighth-smartest city in America?

— The city of Johnstown has a lot to be proud of.

It’s survived three major floods and was long the seat of historic industry.

Much of Johnstown’s story is told with twists and turns, a roller coaster ride on trial-and-error rails.

In seeking its role as a major Pennsylvania metropolitan area, Johnstowners needed to stay sharp – constantly reinventing yourself is hard.

Why, then, is it so hard for Johnstowners to swallow a new study that lists the city as the eighth-smartest metro area in the U.S.?

The study, conducted by Lumos Labs of San Francisco, compares median test scores from cognition exercises on the researchers’ website,, as well as their iPhone/iPad app, Brain Trainer.

More than 20 million people from 180 countries subscribe to Lumosity’s brain-flexing games, which measure six different cognitive proficiencies: Memory, processing, speed, flexibility, attention and problem solving. More than 320 million game plays have been logged since the company’s inception in 2007.

“Lumosity is like a gym for your brain,” said Dr. Daniel Sternberg, a Lumos Labs Inc. data scientist. “Just as you exercise your body physically to keep it in top shape, you need to exercise your brain to keep it sharp.”

Using anonymous geolocation data collected from the app and the site, the 1,059,595 U.S. players were categorized by their estimated metro area, and variables such as age and gender were cut out of the results. The median scores were then ranked by location, with Johnstown lumped in with Altoona and State College.

This means several local universities and their students were breaking the study’s curve: Penn State, Penn State-Altoona, Pitt-Johnstown, St. Francis, Mount Aloysius and Juniata, to name a few. Overall, the residents of this area scored higher on Lumosity’s brain benders than 55 percent of the country.

And with all of these students flexing their noggins on a daily basis, taking notes, quizzes and caffeine to stay awake during lectures, it should be no surprise that they’re strong-arming the mental challenges on and in the Brain Trainer app.

And while the challenges are devilishly simple, in terms of scope, learning how to play and the interface, at least one expert said Lumosity’s exercises are founded in tried and true cognitive science.

“From what I have been gathering about these types of (services), there is something to it,” said John Mullennix, a professor of cognitive psychology at UPJ. “It’s not just a little game.”

In fact, Sternberg said these games are based on standard exercises that cognitive researchers have been using for years.

“Performance on our games is also correlated with a user’s education level, as would be expected from a measure of intelligence,” he said.

Lumos Labs seems to know more about the minds of Johnstowners than their owners do, as many were incredulous when they were first informed of Johnstown’s smartypants status.

“I find that hard to believe,” said Randy Kristoff of Johnstown. “The people that I know from around here don’t seem that smart.”

Jessica Bear of Elton laughed skeptically.

“I just feel like there’s better education everywhere else,” she said.

But, as St. Francis Associate Provost Peter Skoner said, only three states have more universities than Pennsylvania, yet its density of colleges per capita is the highest in the country. He said he feels this study is “good news” for the Johns-

town/Altoona metropolitan area.

“We’re a leading exporter of higher education,” Skoner said.

“I think we do have a high density of quality (schools) around here.”

But that fact doesn’t seem to stop locals from doubting themselves.

“I feel like there’s a real lack of confidence in this town,” said Kristoff.

Frank and Brenda Thomas of Lorain think it has something to do with Johnstown’s classification as a “depressed area.”

“I think people just kind of get used to that,” said Brenda Thomas, inviting the idea that Johnstown has been mired in pervasive self-esteem issues for some time.

Her husband breaks it down even further.

“I guess we’ve always felt we weren’t as good as everybody else,” he said. “More and more working-class people ... don’t feel (like) professionals. Even though we don’t have (degrees), we have knowledge but we don’t feel (like we’re) accounted for.”

Scott Thomas of Hollsopple is a Juniata sophomore and one of the few natives who wasn’t the least bit skeptical of Lumos Labs’ results.

“I could definitely see why people could get down (on themselves), seeing what the city used to be and seeing what it is now, but I think you definitely have to look at what’s (actually) there,” he said.

What is here, as some experts would say, is what’s called a “brain drain” – remember that term? It refers to a lack of job opportunities that take advantage of the skill sets Pennsylvania graduates have built over their academic careers. It ultimately leads to capital flight, where graduates go ply those skills elsewhere.

“We’ve changed from an industrial work force to one that’s focused in health care, education, technology and defense subcontracting,” Skoner said. “These are ‘knowledge’ occupations as compared to ‘touch’ occupations.”

Bear, who recently switched majors at UPJ, has seen several of her friends graduate right onto an outgoing bus.

“(Out of) my friends, I think a lot of them go to Pittsburgh,” she said. “I don’t really think Johnstown does a good job of keeping them here. Just not many opportunities.”

Christopher Zindash of Scalp Level makes it much simpler.

“If you could go to California and be by the ocean or stay here in Johnstown, where would you rather go?” he said.

However, Ignazio Panebianco – who has lived in Johnstown for 18 years – said he loves this city. He’s the cheery owner of Italian restaurant Numero Uno in Westwood. To him, the possibility of tomorrow bringing better things will always give him hope.

“It’s tough – a lot of people ask me, ‘Why are you still here?’ ” he said. “I’m staying here and I’m still waiting for things to get better but I don’t give up. Definitely not.”

Panebianco said that even if he had to close his restaurant for any reason, he would be more than willing – and excited – to reopen and give it another try.

“I will never give up,” he said with a smile.

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