Brain Training Apps that Really Work
There are lots of books, programs, and games out there that claim to train your brain for better memory and increased cognitive performance. And while we do like the idea of playing a game every day to improve our brain power, we have to wonder if these programs live up to their lofty claims. So we went to an expert to find out if a brain-training game could really help make us smarter.
We spoke with Dr. Majid Fotuhi, a neurologist who chairs the Neurology Institute for Brain Health and Fitness. He's written the book "The Memory Cure" and just finished writing a new book, "Boost Your Brain." "The bottom line is this," Dr. Fotuhi tells us, "these games are helpful, but they're only a part of what you need to do in order to have a stronger brain. It's a mistake for people to think they're going to do these games and that's it, their brain is upgraded." But there has been research to indicate that cognitive training can work, including the IMPACT (Improvement in Memory with Plasticity-based Adaptive Cognitive Training) study out of the University of Southern California's Leonard Davis School of Gerontology.
So what should we do to really boost our brainpower? "Physical fitness is one of the most important things for brain health," says Fotuhi. If you want to dedicate time to improving your brain's health, he says these are the most important things to do for children, adults, and seniors:
- Vigorous physical exercise. This, Dr. Fotuhi tells us, is 80% of it. So if you want to help your brain, be sure you're not playing brain training games on the couch: whatever your favorite physical activity is, make sure you're doing something to work up a sweat regularly.
- Memory exercises. "If you want to be sharper, you want to maintain the memory part of the brain (the hippocampus)." So if you're playing any kind of brain training game, look for something that requires you to remember names, faces, or other information to boost those brain muscles.
- Meditation and breathing exercises. Just spending 15 minutes a day will not only help you relax and destress, but also improve your brain's health by decreasing brain excitement.
- Ingest more omega-3 (DHA). You'll find these in fish oil pills—or you can get them by including more fish in your diet—and scientific research suggests they have a number of health benefits, including improving your brain health.
If you're looking for a brain training program, Dr. Fotuhi recommends looking for a program that you enjoy, works your memory, provides plenty of variety to stimulate your brain and is challenging enough to work your mental muscles. How much time you spend will depend on how much improvement you want to see, but the average person should make brain training a daily habit of 15 to 20 minutes.
With that in mind, let's look at our picks for best brain training apps. All of these are designed with science in mind and they provide the variety and challenge Dr. Fotuhi recommends. So if you're looking to do more to flex those mental muscles, these are great places to start.
Think of Lumosity as a gym for your brain. The Lumosity website and app features a series of online games that have been specifically designed to boost your brain muscles, improving memory, speed, problem solving, attention and flexibility—core cognitive abilities that Lumosity says will help you with practical problems like remembering names and even driving better. Lumosity personalizes your training program based on how you're performing and what you want to improve and gives you a daily routine of different brain games to help improve performance in your target areas. With over 35 million users, who range from the ages of 8 and 108, Lumosity is definitely a popular choice in the brain training field.
"Lumosity takes what I refer to as an open science approach," says Dr. Joe Hardy, Lumosity's Vice President of Research and Development. "We make our software available for research partners all over the world to use in studies they're doing to understand better what kinds of games are effective for what types of outcome. We're working with researchers at most of the top universities in the US, including places like Harvard, Stanford, and Berkeley." If you want to know the details of Lumosity's scientific credibility, they keep completed and ongoing research results online.
If you want to get started, there's a free trial, but after that Lumosity has a monthly subscription fee—$11.95 per month if you pay month to month, but with deep discounts if you pay for a year or more up front. A 1-year subscription will average out to $4 a month and a 2-year subscription will cost you $3 a month, and if you decide to make a lifetime commitment to Lumosity, you can pick up a lifetime subscription for $239.96.
If you like the idea of brain training, but Lumosity feels too much like a visit to your doctor's office—by which we mean not very fun—you might want to check out Fit Brains. Like Lumosity, Fit Brains aims to improve your mental performance by running you through a series of brain games that are selected to help you improve areas you're weaker in. However, unlike Lumosity, Fit Brains feels a lot more like a video game, which may be just what you need to stay motivated and on track. And as you play Fit Brains games, they'll become more difficult, so you're always getting a challenging brain workout.
You can create an account and start training with Fit Brains for free, but to unlock all the games, you'll need to pay a monthly subscription fee. If you pay month to month, Fit Brains is the pricier option at $19.95 a month. But if you pay for a year up front, it averages out to $8.33 a month and for a two-year subscription, you'll pay $6.25 a month. There's also a lifetime subscription option for $399.95.
If these options all sound pricey, Brain Workshop may be more your speed. Though it doesn't offer a variety of games or a personalized program like Lumosity and Fit Brains, this open source application is entirely free for Macs and Windows PCs.
Brain Workshop is what's called a dual N-back game, a type of memory game that recent studies suggest can improve short term memory and fluid intelligence. The game—which closely replicates the experience of the original study—requires you to remember a series of spoken letters accompanied by squares in specific positions on the screen. As new squares and accompanying letters pop up, you have to say if they match the previous ones. The system is configurable to make it more or less difficult and also includes statistics tracking so you can monitor your improvement.
Hopefully one of these options is a good fit for you. Happy brain training!
Updated on 7/2/2014 with pricing changes and new app information