Brain training games seem to be everywhere, offering you the opportunity to boost your brain power by spending a bit of time playing every day. Just like going to the gym, brain training apps promise to boost mental muscle to improve memory, concentration and more. Sharpening your mental prowess—or just never forgetting where you left your keys—has a lot of appeal, but can brain training live up to its lofty claims?
The answer seems to be maybe.
Scientific studies on this kind of brain training have produced mixed results, ranging from dramatic improvements in cognition to no changes at all. While playing brain training games will certainly make you better at those games, a 2010 study—which surveyed over 11,000 people—suggests they won’t necessarily make you better at other tasks. That’s a definite problem, but it may not be true, or at least not for everyone: a 2015 study of people over the age of 50 showed online brain training games had a “significant benefit” on cognition. And the benefit of games may go beyond that: playing any kind of video game has proven to have some cognitive benefit. While those positive results may sound like a win for brain training, new research suggests the placebo effect could have a lot to do with how study participants perform. A small study this year, surveying 50 people,found those who were told they were participating in a brain training study performed better on intelligence tests because they believed such training would work.
So what does this mean when it comes to the big promises of brain training apps? You probably want to take them with a grain of salt. Just this year, popular app-maker Lumos Labs, which makes the brain training game Lumosity, was fined by the FTC for overstating the app’s benefits.You’ll find Lumosity and similar apps don’t claim to do quite so much anymore, and all back claims up with science. Lumos Labs currently touts a study in which participants using Lumosity users had greater improvements to cognition than participants doing crossword puzzles—and the more Lumosity users played brain training games, the more they improved.”These results are promising,” says Erica Perng, Director of Communications at Lumos Labs. “But more research is needed to determine the connection between improved assessment scores and everyday tasks in participants’ lives.”
And that sums up what we know about brain training: it may help you stay sharp or it may help certain types of people stay sharp, or it may not help any more than doing other mental activities to give your brain a workout.
Should you train your brain?
The truth of the matter probably falls somewhere in between studies touting brain training as a miracle cure and studies that say brain training does nothing. While you shouldn’t expect your IQ to skyrocket, exercising your brain can be as important as exercising your body.
“You have to use your neural networks in the brain to keep your brain functioning well and to improve it,” says Professor Barbara Sahakian, Professor of Clinical Neuropsychology at the University of Cambridge and the Behavioural and Clinical Neuroscience Institute. Professor Sahakian works with brain training company Peak to develop brain training games, including ‘Wizard,’ which has been shown to help cognitive function for people with schizophrenia. Unlike other activities, brain training games are designed to make you flex those mental muscles, providing challenges to improve different types of cognition, from remembering names to quickly calculating a tip.
While activities like doing crossword puzzles can train your brain, what they lack is variety: most brain training programs offer a selection of games to help you improve across the board. “Doing mental activities, such as crosswords or sudoku puzzles, are better than doing no activities that stimulate the mind… However, certain app games, for example the University of Cambridge and Peak Advanced Training Programmes, are actually devised with evidence from neuropsychological and neuroimaging studies,” explains Sahakian. “Crossword puzzles involve language function and therefore may not be suitable for people who do not have English as their first language or who are not used to the conventions of a crossword. In other words, different games may improve different types of cognition.”
But, like any exercise, the most important part of brain training is sticking with it. “Consistency is the most important part,” says Peter Zogas, Director of Educational Content for Elevate. “Just like with exercise, working on mental skills is better if you’re doing something every day.”
And that’s where brain training apps seem to shine, with quick, fun games that are easy to do in a few free minutes from your mobile device. This makes them easy to work into your daily routine, no matter how busy you are—and that can help you stick to brain training for long enough to see results.
The best brain training apps
If you’re interested in giving brain training a try, you have a dizzying array of options. When searching for the right brain training program, you want something with a variety of games that challenge you—and adjust to your skill level so they’ll keep challenging you. And, while you could see some improvements from playing any video game, you’ll be better off finding a brain trainer that’s designed to help you improve cognition in practical ways. To keep up with your new brain training habit, you’ll also want games that are easy to fit into your schedule and motivate you to keep playing. You also want an app that tracks your progress as you play, so you can see whether you’re actually improving.
These three apps are our favorites—all of them meet the criteria above and offer some free games with a subscription that unlocks more training options.
Among the apps here, Elevate takes the most practical approach. “We think of brain training as a way to improve concrete skills for everyday life,” says Zogas. “Our games are designed to target specific problems people have, like trouble calculating a tip or difficulty writing a clear email to a colleague. They work because they focus on a specific task and offer step-by-step instructions for improving your performance.” Backing up the app is a study that shows individuals using Elevate did 69% better on a performance test than non-users—and more training meant more improvement.
Most of Elevate’s 35 games relate directly to real world tasks, and considering the questions about whether getting better at brain training games means getting better at actual tasks, that’s a good thing. The app’s brightly colored games focus everyday mental hurdles like writing, listening, speaking, reading and math—just pick the skills you’d like to improve and the app will set up a personalized training program.
Price for full access: 1 month for $11.99, 1 year for $44.99, lifetime membership for $149.99
Get Elevate for iPhone or Android
The oldest of these brain training apps, Lumosity has been around since 2007 and has 70 million users playing more than 50 different games. Don’t think the app’s age means it’s out of date, though: Lumosity is continually improving based on the latest user feedback and science. “Our games and science teams apply new peer-reviewed research and game mechanics to our game development process,” explains Perng. And—this year’s clash with the FTC aside—Lumosity has a lot of science behind it. Lumosity’s Human Cognition Project works with scientists from over 40 universities and has more than 50 studies in progress to research the effects of brain training.
You’ll start out in Lumosity by doing a brain fitness test, which lets you know how you compare to others in your age bracket. Then you’ll be tasked with daily brain games focusing on core cognitive abilities. Compared to Elevate, Lumosity’s games feel more conceptual—for example, a game that shows you a flock of birds with one pointing a different direction than the rest, challenging you to pick the odd one out quickly. With the most games of the programs on this list, Lumosity offers a lot of variety for your daily mental workout.
Price for full access: 1 month for $11.99, 1 year for $59.99
Get Lumosity for iPhone or Android or play it on the web
What’s the difference between a game and a brain training game? “By definition, all games should be fun. However, not all games have an evidence base,” says Professor Sahakian. Peak, which develops games with experts at major universities like Cambridge and Yale, fits that bill. The program’s 40 games feel a bit more like games than educational activities, which could make it the perfect training app for you. Games focus on training memory, attention, problem solving, mental agility, language, coordination, creativity and emotion control, with Advanced Training Programs that focus on training very specific skills.
Peak’s stand-out feature is Coach, your virtual brain training coach, which evaluates how you’re doing and offers tips on how to improve. You can choose to do quick games that are easy to fit in your schedule or go with Coach’s recommendations to really work those mental muscles.
Price for full access: 1 month for $4.99, 1 year for $34.99
Get Peak for iPhone or Android
[Man thinking with smartphone via Shutterstock]
Updated on 9/21/2016 with new app information