- Brain training apps can improve working memory, processing speed and brain function
- Apps can also improve psychological and emotional states, experts say
- Most of the apps listed here are based on established treatments
Whether it's to focus at work, do better at school, or just stay sharp, there are various reasons for wanting to boost brainpower. But maintaining psychological well-being is equally as important.
"Stress and anxiety are among the most pressing and far-reaching public health problems we face," says Tracy Dennis, professor of psychology at Hunter College. "Mental changes affect every part of our lives: physical health, sense of well-being, work, educational productivity and community involvement."
Nadine Kaslow, professor and vice chair at Emory University's Department of Psychiatry and president of the American Psychological Association, says apps can help promote mental health through participation in activities designed to reduce symptoms and improve psychological functioning.
Then there are apps that don't directly target mental health, but aim to increase cognitive functioning.
"We know that apps like Lumosity can improve memory, problem solving skills and processing speed, especially in older adults," says Kaslow. "There are also studies that show that people who engage in these video games are less likely to develop brain plaques associated with Alzheimer's disease. Keeping your mind active is as important as physical exercise and these apps can help you stay fit mentally."
Put your mind to the test
These days, hundreds of brain-training apps claim to put the "smart" in smartphone and guarantee cognitive improvement with minimal daily use. Don't think your flaky memory or scatterbrain can be restored? Studies are mixed, since this technology is in the early stages of development.
But a 2012 systematic review that analyzed 151 computerized training studies published between 1984 and 2011, found that certain training tasks had a big effect on working memory, processing speed and brain function. In short, playing computer games for a few minutes a day can literally change your mind.
"When you do things in the world, you lay down new neural pathways," says Dennis. "The more you do something, the more available that pathway is, so you may be able to use your brain resources more effectively."
New brainteaser apps show up every day in mobile app stores with claims to improve memory, increase I.Q., or enhance other cognitive skills. They may be fun to play, but how many of them actually work?
The goal here after all is to train your brain, not just play video games. Most of the below selections are based on established treatments that have been extensively studied and validated by independent research sources.
For the most part, brain apps can't make you smarter or happier, but they can help you perform certain tasks better or have more control over your emotional state. Keep in mind that most games are designed for people who are reasonably healthy, not for those with mental disorders, and are no replacement for a mental health professional.
While you're not going to notice any drastic transformation, it's worth giving one of these apps a try, since engaging in various types of new and cognitively demanding tasks is good for the brain (plus, it's fun!).
The best apps for your brain
This popular app is split into sessions of three games tailored to your goals: memory, attention, problem solving, processing speed or flexibility of thinking. The games are played against the clock and change every time. Developers say just one session a day can improve mental skills and users can track progress and compare performance with others. (Free for limited access, upgrade for $15 a month or $80 a year; available for iOS)
Improve cognitive abilities, such as memory and concentration, with sleek, fun and addictive games designed by neuroscientists. Users can track progress and access insights about overall brain health. Competitive players can challenge friends, too.
After an initial quiz, the app adapts each game's difficulty to your profile and gives you recommendations based on your results. Developers found that users saw improvement by spending at least 20 minutes, two to three times a week, playing the games. (Free for four games or full subscription for $13 a month or $120; available for iOS)
3. Personal Zen
Players follow two animated characters, one of which looks calm and friendly while the other looks angry, as they burrow through a field of rustling grass. This game, developed by Dennis and researchers from Hunter College and the City University of New York, reduces anxiety by training your brain to focus more on the positive and less on the negative.
"The habit of thinking about the world in a more positive light — like looking for a silver lining in a bad situation — is one of the key ways we can promote our own resilience in the face of adversity," says Dennis.
Even a single session of play can build resilience over several hours. She suggests using the app right before a stressful event, but 10 minutes a day will help build more enduring positive effects. (Free; available for iOS)
Like Lumosity, this Android app contains games that have you memorizing letter sequences, phone numbers and solving assorted math problems to keep your mind in tip-top shape. Difficulty levels range from easy to brain-tingling hard. (Free; available on Google Play)
Brain Fitness Pro employs a series of memory training exercises to increase focus, memory and problem-solving skills. Developers say that intensive working memory training dramatically increases attention and general cognitive skills and that these benefits remain long term. ($4; available for iOS)
Train your brain to be happier? Yep, research shows that some activities help build your ability to conquer negative thoughts, show gratitude, cope with stress, and empathize -- all essential ingredients for a fuller, happier life.
Using fundamentals of positive psychology, which involves focusing on the strengths and virtues that enable individuals to create fulfilling lives, the app's quizzes, polls and gratitude journal -- combined with a positive community -- gradually teach life-changing habits. The goal is to build these skills and keep users smiling all day. (Free; available for iOS)
This app was originally developed for service members returning from combat with high risk for post-traumatic stress disorder. It uses augmented reality with an Android phone's GPS to find nearby activities and diversions for someone coping with depression.
If you cannot make up your mind what to do, "pull the lever" and let the app's jackpot function make the choice for you. PAJ is based on a form of behavioral therapy called pleasant event scheduling, which encourages a daily schedule of enjoyable activities to improve moods and overcome despondent thoughts. (Free; available on Google Play)
More than 360 unique games and puzzles aimed at stretching and improving your mental agility lead users through various tasks. Sessions get harder as you improve and will always challenge you and provide a solid brain workout.
Keep track of your progress and performance tools and the program offers training recommendations for best results. (Free; available on iOS and on Google Play)
Eidetic uses a technique called spaced repetition to help you memorize anything from important phone numbers to interesting words or facts. It works differently from typical brain training apps by using items that have meaning and context, like your beau's phone number, bank account details, or a new quote worth reciting.
Notifications remind you when it's time to test yourself and spaces out tests over time to make sure you retain the information in long-term memory. (Free; available on iOS)
Kaslow developed this award-winning app for suicide prevention but it can be used as a general mood tracker.
"It's like MyFitnessPal in that you can track all sorts of things that are relevant to your mental health," says Kaslow.
It also includes unique coping methods, such as voice-recorded mindfulness and relaxation exercises, or relaxing music. The map locator pinpoints nearby therapists, support groups and mental health treatment facilities, too, in case you ever need to talk to a professional.
While brain-training apps will never completely take the place of face-to-face intervention and prevention approaches, Dennis sees their potential as an adjunct to other stress-reducing activities, whether that's exercise, yoga, or seeing a therapist.
"Apps can also be gateway treatments that empower the individual to make positive changes, which can then lead to seek out other health promotion tools."
And while technology can help sharpen the brain and calm the nerves, true mental health is much more holistic.
"What's most important is feeling you have meaning in life and social connections," says Kaslow. "It doesn't mean you have to be happy, but it does have to do with having purpose."
And there's no app for that...yet.