Watch any old western film, and you’ll probably see a traveling salesman character. They ride into town in a covered wagon, and immediately set up shop and begin selling the latest, most potent cure known to mankind. Chills? It’ll fix that. Fever? That’s covered, too. Itches, rashes, hives, headaches, fatigue, excitement, toothache, and limp? Everything is cured instantly by Dr. McGillicuddy’s Fantabulous Miracle Tonic and Drink Mix.
And it even serves as an all-in-one shampoo and conditioner.
But, of course, it doesn’t work. It’s a sham. A hustle. A con. You’re buying snake oil.
We in the modern world would never fall for those kinds of fraudulent claims and advertising. Right? We’re far too clever and “in-the-know”. Or are we?
Consider the burgeoning brain training industry. It didn’t really exist just a few years ago, and now it’s everywhere. It’s a multi-million dollar business, with new apps and companies popping up all the time. The only thing missing is the covered wagon…
But do they work? Are brain training apps the miracle cure they claim to be, or is it just the 21st century equivalent of turpentine in a bottle?
The Evidence is Split
The short answer? No, they aren’t, at least not to the degree they claim. The longer answer? It depends on the criteria. We are just now getting serious about testing and verifying these apps. And the evidence is underwhelming.
The idea behind these games - neuroplasticity - is real science. Our brains can rewire itself, forge new connections, based on real-life experiences. Brain training apps take that to the digital realm.
A Snapshot of the Research
An Australian study published in PLOS Medicine found some benefits, but not the miracle cure some hoped for. They found moderate improvements in thinking speed, minor improvements to verbal, nonverbal, and working memory, as well as visual/spatial skills, but no discernible improvement in attention and executive functions amongst 4885 subjects.
That’s by no means horrible - even minor improvement in something is still improvement - but it’s not exactly a glowing recommendation either.
Another study published in the Journal of the American Geriatrics Society found an improvement of 58% in auditory information processing speeds in healthy, senior adults.
Psychologist Susanne Jaeggi published a study in 2008 that suggested people could increase their IQ by a whole point for each hour spent on memory training games. But, a team from Georgia Tech found no evidence to back up her claims when they repeated her research.
Finally, Neuroscientist Dr. Adrian Owen believes that players get better at the specific tasks presented in the games themselves over time, but that does not necessarily indicate improvements in their fluid intelligence. His 2010 study included 11,000 test subjects.
Improve Your Brain Power. Or Not.
The evidence, then, is split. Some see minor improvements. Some see negligible improvements. Some see none. Others claim you can move up the IQ ladder fairly quickly.
Whether you believe one, some, none, or all, the only thing that everyone seems to agree on is that brain training apps won’t HURT your brain power. Not a ringing endorsement, perhaps, but if there’s a possibility that they might provide some benefit, why not try?
What have you got to lose? The list of apps available is long. The claims range from intriguing to downright unbelievable. These X represent the biggest and most popular.
Try one. Try them all. A bit of your time (and maybe a bit of cash if you want to upgrade to the pro accounts) is all it costs you.
Miracle cure? Doesn’t look like it. But they might give you a slight nudge up (and if the snake oil you bought helped to get rid of your sniffles - even by accident - then it was worth the 5 cents, right?).
The biggest. The most famous. Lumosity was co-founded by Mike Scanlon, a former neuroscience student, so at least it has some pedigree behind it. It claims 70 million members in 180 countries, over 40 (and counting) different games, and the ability to “train” on virtually any device (iOS, Android, and the web). Your personalized training program includes memory, attention, speed, flexibility, and problem solving that is built for you after answering a series of questions (what you want out of the program).
There’s a free trial period, but you’ll eventually have to purchase a paid subscription if you want to continue.
2. CogniFit Brain Fitness
Their slogan? We are science. And they have the staff and background to support it. CogniFit was founded by Shlomo Breznitz, a cognitive psychologist, and many of the researchers are neuroscientists. Their website links to various independent studies that verify their claims. They definitely take the science and research to heart. Just like Lumosity, they start with a personalized training program based on your unique requirements and cognitive abilities.
Available on the web and for iOS, CogniFit has a limited free subscription and paid premium accounts with more games and features.
This one takes a slightly different approach. Yes, it’s brain training. Yes, it’s backed by science and research. But as the name Happify suggests, their focus is your happiness. And with a slogan like “Happiness. It’s winnable.”, they set the bar high. Who doesn’t want to be happier?
But don’t be fooled...there’s science at work here. Positive psychology at play. This is all about your emotional intelligence, something that is just as important as your cognitive abilities but all-too-often ignored. Their section on the Science of Happiness is worth a visit, even if the service itself doesn’t appeal to you.
There’s an app for Android and iOS, and the web version, with both free (limited) and paid accounts.
This service is designed to improve your memory. It uses spaced repetition to help you memorize virtually anything. Eidetic allows its users to enter their own content - whatever it is that you want to memorize - and set the frequency of training. The app for iOS will remind you when it’s time. From their website; “Spaced repetition is a learning technique that incorporates increasing intervals of time between subsequent review of previously learned material in order to exploit the psychological spacing effect.” Sounds complicated, but it’s not.
Sometimes, you just want to zero in on one ability. And if it’s memory, then Eidetic is the app for you. And it’s free to boot!
Elevate works on your processing, brevity, and memory skills. It’s your personal brain trainer (according to their slogan), and it was named the 2014 App of the Year by Apple, so you know it’s going to be cutting edge (Apple has some rather high standards). It’s also available for Android.
As with the other entries on the list, Elevate is backed by science and ongoing research. The staff includes neuroscientists and cognitive learning experts, and they claim to train over 30 critical skills. You’ll receive personalized games - with the pro (i.e. paid) account getting at least one new game each month - to improve the skills that matter most to you.
Brain training apps are not going to turn you into the next Einstein, Newton, or Hawking. They won’t make you a super genius. But there is some evidence to suggest they can be beneficial. “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,” says neurologist Dr. Majid Fotuhi.
Dr. Fotuhi suggests complementing the general brain training apps with physical exercise, memory-specific exercises, meditation and breathing exercises, and the inclusion of more omega-3 in your diet for optimal brain health.
Do you use any of the brain training games mentioned above or indeed any other brain training games? Do you think they are effective?