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3 Brain Training Apps that Really Work

posted by on September 21, 2016 in Health and Home, Phones and Mobile, Mobile Apps, iPhone/iPad Apps, Health & Fitness, Guides & Reviews, Top Picks :: 28 comments

Man thinking with phone

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.


Elevate app screenshot

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

Discussion loading


Brain Games

From Sharon on March 05, 2014 :: 1:20 pm

I LOVE Luminosity!  I had dappled with their free account for about 6 months last year which gave me limited access. Had an “ah hah” moment when I realized that there is a family history of mental illness on my father side & dementia on my mother side. At 56, I stopped dappling, & made it part of my daily routine. I have seen a difference in memory, focus & concentration. Last month I took advantage of a 30% off special & took out a family membership. Now my son ( recently diagnosed with schizophrenia), my grown daughter (new college student @ 30 something)& 2 oldest grandchild ( ages 15 & 11)  all play brain games.



Can Brain Workshop work on Win 7?

From mary on April 11, 2014 :: 1:03 am

The Brain Workshop page says it will work on XP and Vista. Says nothing about Win7. Has anyone tried Brain Workshop on win7? I do not have the money for Luminosity or FitBrain but I sure don’t want to mess up my computer downloading it if BrainWorkshop doesn’t work right using win7. Thanks for any help!



Sorry for the slow response.

From Suzanne Kantra on July 01, 2014 :: 3:03 pm

Sorry for the slow response. It does work on Win7 and Win8. I just installed the program and tried it.


Waste of money

From Mark Davis on July 02, 2014 :: 1:02 pm

So the expert says these games are pretty much useless yet the article goes on to advertise them with their top pick of course being the most expensive.  I have to agree with the expert, these games are useless.  If you really want to exercise your brain, put that stupid game down, get off of the couch, and go live life.



Dr. Fotuhi doesn't say brain

From Suzanne Kantra on July 03, 2014 :: 4:02 am

Dr. Fotuhi doesn’t say brain training games are useless.  Number two on his list of things you can do to improve your brain’s health is memory exercises, which the best brain training games can provide.



Better app

From Gene on July 01, 2015 :: 5:18 pm

My favorite brain game is Brainwell. It is the most interesting, cheapest, and best made app out there. You guys should check it out.



Yeah, it's really simple and

From Ankit Puri on October 25, 2015 :: 5:10 am

Yeah, it’s really simple and is free of cost, it’s in app purchase aren’t also expensive like others. The look, the feel, everything is great.



Try it

From anna1jackson on January 19, 2016 :: 11:12 am

I don’t now how about increasing IQ but this app really can improve your short term memory


Where is lumosity?

From Erdem Çalışkan on December 05, 2015 :: 3:36 pm

Where is lumosity?



Lumosity is the second recommendation

From Suzanne Kantra on December 06, 2015 :: 3:03 pm

Lumosity is the second recommendation on our list.


My own app for brain training

From Alexey Izvalov on December 13, 2015 :: 5:55 pm

Hello! I want to share my own app for brain training: EATERS ( )

It’s the game which trains multitasking, attention, mental endurance, memory and calculations. You should watch the several flows or food and open and close the mouths to eat the exact quantity of food bits.

Right now I’m gathering stats to improve my game. My students in Air Traffic Control managed to reach the top score of almost 300 in hard mode.


Waste of time and money

From Pallet Man on May 20, 2016 :: 3:28 pm

The research shows that these brain training exercises only improve the narrow task exercised. So, if you want to find the duck faster, keep doing that exercise. If you need to get better at mental math, do mental math exercises or Sudoku.
These exercised DO NOT change the progression of Alzheimer’s or such.
Read, get outside, engage in life, do things you enjoy, be with nice people, eat healthy, get good sleep. These will all do more for your brain than any brain training exercise.


Good App

From Vitaliy Kurilo on August 09, 2016 :: 6:32 am



Memory Monkey

From DJ on August 27, 2016 :: 4:06 pm

You can also try Memory Monkey Free on App Store



Addicted to Apps

From Dave on September 28, 2016 :: 2:36 pm

My name is Dave and I’m addicted to apps. Haha. No, but seriously I can’t get enough of them. Especially the ones that aren’t a complete waste of time. It helps when they are entertaining, which is why I also made a list of fun but useful apps too. Thought I would share in case any of you are lovers of the app world, like myself.
Thanks for the post!



New memory-training app/game!

From Günay Geyik on October 24, 2016 :: 7:04 am

Have you tried Monkey Bubbles, not for the whole brain thoguh, but really useful for keeping memory functions up and having fun at the same time.



Monkey Bubbles does not help

From Pallet Man on October 24, 2016 :: 11:42 pm

Monkey Bubbles may help people learn how to focus as an improved skill but it does not improve short term memory, a brain function, not a skill. Short term memory is a electro-chemical process. They have yet to find a way to correct this when it is malfunctioning.
Proper nutrition, proper sleep (most important),and avoiding bad chemistry (drugs, etc) will help more.



Hello,thank you for you comment.Of

From Günay Geyik on October 25, 2016 :: 2:50 am

thank you for you comment.
Of course it cannot help by itself since the treatment includes electro-chemical process as well as you mentioned, it can be just an additional factor to help, and this was what I meant.



No, it does not help.

From Pallet Man on October 26, 2016 :: 2:36 pm

Saying Monkey Bubbles helps with short term memory is like saying I can satisfy my hunger by looking at food. Just because you can increase your score does not mean you have improved your short term memory. Almost every improvement seen in brain training is due to learning how to do the specific task. The only true change is when the exercise promotes an increase in reaction and processing speed.
Monkey Bubbles may be entertaining and provide an opportunity to get better at Monkey Bubbles but if you change to a different exercise, you will be starting over on the brain training learning curve.
These are just attempts to make some money off a gullible public who do not understand the limits of brain training.
Getting good exercise can be just as beneficial.


dual n-back

From flashy guy on January 08, 2017 :: 7:50 am

play dual n-back, it is scientifically proven that it gives a boost to your IQ and to your mental intelligence.

Dual n-back is flawed science.

From Pallet Man on January 08, 2017 :: 11:27 pm

If not flawed, it is at the least over stated. Read the study. Dual n-back is a skills improvement program. They specifically say that is trains a skill set that is testable by an existing intelligence test for fluid intelligence but uses different but similar tasks. The skill learned is focus and a form of dual tasking. Improvement in focus is primary to dual tasking. This shows up in improvements in digit span. Many newly learned skills can be applied to different tasks that utilize similar skills. The simplest concept is learning to juggle. This crosses over to other eye to hand coordination tasks.
I can train someone to be more observant, especially during the younger years. This can be used in many arenas. I can even train the persons to have faster observation skills. This will show up in some intelligence tests.
But, is this an increase in intelligence or a decrease in visual laziness ? I say the latter.
Again, brain training is skills development, not intelligence improvement.



Elevate is fun and has

From Matt Perkins on January 08, 2017 :: 8:42 pm

Elevate is fun and has me considering buying a pro membership, Lumosity is a joke. The fact the Lumosity app has not been optimized for the newest iPhone screen sizes tells you all you need to know. Consider this, Lumosity is charging $12 a month for their pro version yet they haven’t even optimized their app for the newest iPhone screen sizes. The iPhone 6 and 6 Plus came out in 2014 and yet we’re in the 2017. If a company isn’t gonna improve their app, it shows it’s a cash grab. If you don’t believe me look at the keyboard of Lumosity on iPhone 7 Plus and compare it to the keyboard of Elevate. Elevate is optimized, Lumosity isn’t. When Lumosity invests money in optimizing their app I will re-evalute it. But chances are they won’t until Apple makes it a requirement.


This sounds like a troll endorsement.

From Pallet Man on January 08, 2017 :: 11:31 pm

If you find it entertaining and buy it for its entertainment value, there is no reason to not subscribe. But don’t expect it to improve your brain functions.



just not to lose it completely

From adela salazar on March 03, 2017 :: 11:48 am

i’m fighting myalgic encephalomyelitis, an illness that has a neurological component and was therefore watching the relentless progressive deterioration of my skills –and very much noticing it. as i cannot indulge in any of the ‘normal’ ways of giving your brain a workout, like going for a walk, exercising or anything else that tires me out, for that just worsens it all, i turned to brain training apps so as to not just do nothing.
so i’m using the apps just wanting to mantain what i have or hopefully get back some of what i’ve always had and not necessarily to improve beyond that point.
i’ve tried several apps and with time i’ve focused on lumosity, peak and elevate.
as i haven’t been able to work for over two years, i am limited to just the no-pay versions, so it won’t come as a surprise that i no longer use lumosity, for it’s lack of variety becomes just annoying with time. i’m not seeing much anymore of peak either, for i cannot cope anymore with the violence implicit in some of its games; it just turns me down. i understand very well that most people today don’t consider the daily coping with violence to be a bad thing, but i’d guess that violence truly doesn’t prepare you for violence, it just harms you further.
so that leaves elevate. in broad terms, i am contented with it, do my daily workout and look at my statistics.
i love to be able to do my exercising in way less than half an hour each day and mostly enjoy it very much. to have to do it at a speedy pace used to cause me lots of anxiety but i’m past that point by now.
what i truly miss in elevate is some kind of logical exercise that makes you think out of the box, for that seems to widen your capacity of understanding.
i would wish as well for a less steep progression that allows you to truly get what they offer at a certain level before moving on. a knob allowing to set the rate would be a great addition.
daily i do as well some sudokus and read (and rapidly forget most of it).
summing up, i’d say that none of these games will be able to give you what you haven’t got, so don’t go for false hopes, but they may certainly help you not to lose it any further or not as fast as may be usual with aging or stress alzheimer’s or such a large variety of illnesses.



Free computer games

From Pallet Man on March 03, 2017 :: 1:46 pm

I suggest you do any of the free computer games. MSN Games has plenty. I do the 3 jig saw puzzles everyday in about 30 to 40 minutes. They challenge visual perception.
I also play minesweeper, freecell, spider solitaire, and others that require cognitive processing. The goal is maintaining good blood flow so you do not need these over-priced and over-hyped brain training games.



thank you, pallet man

From adela salazar on March 04, 2017 :: 11:54 pm

i’ll give it a try. i very much appreciate your answer.



N-back works!

From Pro n-back on June 30, 2017 :: 10:51 am

Those naysayers for the dual n-back method, you see them pop up everywhere. I would almost think they are getting paid to make their statement, or they are just very negative people. I see them y brag about that they can do 9-back or even higher and then they say they thill have a bad memory.
You have to give your brain a challenging task and there are studies that prove the workings of n-back together with so many positive testimonials for so many years.
Though I doubt if all the n-back software/apps out there have a good randomizer, because with some of them I clearly saw the same patterns repeating which is no good for working memory and Gf improvement.
The more creative ones I liked the best, because otherwise it is too boring. This one I liked best:
And for kids this one is really nice:



These applications teach skills.

From Pallet Man on June 30, 2017 :: 4:43 pm

These applications all teach narrow skills. The actual broad improvement levels are minuscule compared to the narrow skill improvements. Some of the skills have cross-over to other skills.
The mind is amazing at how it can develop skills and protocols for maximizing success with a task.Learning better focusing skills and developing indexing of images improves the processing of those images.
Most people have lazy minds. With a bit of practice, these lazy skills can be greatly improved. N-back and other like it do that.


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