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Brain training is big business. It first gained popularity with the arrival of a new generation of hand-held devices like the Nintendo DS in 2004, and its business is now so big, that it’s one of the few app categories that is able to operate on subscription models almost exclusively.
As a result, it’s important you know what you’re getting when it comes to your brain training solutions. In this roundup we’re looking at the best brain training apps, from giants like Lumosity, to the more specific apps that take a different approach to training the brain – like Happify. We’ll be analyzing each app’s features, the costs involved, but also, whether an app is usable in its free tier, without a subscription.
But first, what is brain training? Properly known as cognitive training, it explores the theory that your brain’s abilities can be maintained or improved upon by exercising it in the same way you might the rest of your body. It can be a contentious issue, because scientifically, evidence is sparse on it actually helping brain function. But for us, it depends what you’re looking to get out of these apps. For many, spending hours on a game doesn’t seem productive, but, anecdotally, we find a blast on a brain training app refocuses our concentration and lets us get on with other things.
Either way, most brain training apps are really easy to get into. They all do a great job of guiding you into the games and tasks, explaining what needs to be done before ramping up difficulty based on your response. In essence, all these solutions are worthwhile, but after reading our roundup you should have a more-informed idea of which one would be the best fit for you.
Free tier or
$11.99/£11.99 per month
$59.99/£59.99 per year
We’re going to start with the big one. Lumosity is used by over 85 million people across the world. The subscription isn’t the cheapest out there, but its range of games is massive and strike the right balance between fun and challenging. It uses an LPI to measure your progress – that’s the Lumosity Performance Index, and is a standardized scale based on your game scores. You can also compare it with the average scores of other users.
There are thirty games at the moment – with more said to be on the way – but in the meantime these cover things like memory, attention, problem solving, flexibility, speed and more. It also gives you insight into your planning skills or your speed or accuracy by encouraging you to complete a certain game a number of times. Whether brain training works or not, Lumosity works with a whole bunch of scientists to at least provide professional insight into your abilities. As we said, the subscription isn’t cheap, but paying for a full year provides a massive discount. At $60 that’s around fifty percent. We signed up during a holiday so the discounts were even bigger.
For those wishing to try it out, you can set up a profile and record your progress, but you only gain access to six games a day in a quick workout. This might be enough for some who just want a quick blast to get going. We made Lumosity our main pick due to the power behind the organization – it also pushes out an update every two weeks with bug fixes and other improvements, so you know it’s not going to be forgotten about.
Brain training can be a personal thing – design, game style and other approaches might mean other apps are better for you. We’d also recommend users explore the following apps as they offer something a little different to Lumosity, but in a slightly different vein. You may notice a major name in brain training that’s missing – Peak. Some may wish to check this app out as well, but we didn’t consider it worth getting into in this roundup as its differences from Lumosity are marginal.
Free tier or
$4.99/£4.99 per month
$39.99/£39.99 per year
Elevate is a seriously up-and-coming brain training app. It hasn’t been going as long as Lumosity, but it has more games – 42. Though Lumosity definitely takes quality over quantity. Elevate is, again, cheaper and takes more of an interest in what you want to get out of the app. Whether that’s to concentrate more, retain more information, or something else, when you sign up Elevate asks these questions. We’re not exactly sure how much your answers affects the training you’re subsequently given, but at the very least it makes you think about your goals.
It does feel like Elevate is, like many others, simply aping Lumosity. It measures your EPQ – similar to the LPI. But there are differences in approach – Lumosity seems to be more about gamifying your development – which makes sense – but Elevate has more games that focus on grammar, words and numbers giving it more of a learning edge, rather than response. We like that after these types of games the app provides explanations on the answers in a post-test report.
Free tier or
$12.99/£12.99 per quarter
$29.99/£29.99 per year
$79.99/£79.99 lifetime membership
Memorado may only have a tenth of the users Lumosity claims to have, but it’s clearly trying to change that. When we were testing the app we were instantly encouraged to sign up to a premium tier with fifty percent off the regular price. Though Memorado doesn’t have a 1 month premium option, this offer does make it the best value solution so far.
In terms of usability, Memorado is a joy to use – it’s simplistic, employs a pleasant soundtrack and is designed with relaxing pastel colors in mind. This is a brain training solution for those that also want a bit of relaxation thrown in. The stats aren’t overwhelming, declining to drill down, instead providing ongoing information in graphical form. It also includes a Mindfulness function, and doesn’t restrict the time you can spend completing tasks on the free tier. A quick note on the games, we’d say they’re not as interesting or well designed as the others. They’re simplistic in places and sometimes lack suitable challenge – but then that fits with the more relaxing theme, we suppose.
And why not try
The above are a set of very idiosyncratic brain trainers. They’re unlikely to offer anything groundbreaking, but for those that want to try something a bit different, or even drill down into a specific type of brain training – take a look at the following three options, which take another approach altogether.
Free tier or
$8.99/£8.99 per month
$39.99/£39.99 per 6 months
$44.99/£44.99 per 1 year
Happify is all about training your brain… to be happy. Focusing on those with anxiety or depression, or destructive thinking, the idea is to train your brain to think more positively. It’s kind of like cognitive behavioral therapy in app form. After completing a quick questionnaire where you note some key details – whether you have a job, any pre-existing conditions or problems (don’t worry, it doesn’t get specific,) you’re ready to go.
The app operates on a cycle – every day you can answer a few questions, start a ‘track’ – which is essentially a theme, like breaking the worry cycle, or improving your parenting – then complete some fun tasks, and repeat. The idea is it’ll create a positive habit and improve your outlook on life. Does it work? That’s hard to say. The tasks aren’t always engaging and largely focus on speaking to yourself positively or having the app itself provide positive words, but we’d say it’s very much down to the individual. The character strength report you receive is interesting, and there are over 30 tracks you can follow which will keep you going for a long time. It’s definitely a fresh take over the apps we’ve discussed previously.
Mensa Brain Training
Free tier or
$5.99/£5.99 per quarter
$9.99/£9.99 per year
$15.99/£15.99 per two years
This has a big name attached to it and it gives it the leverage to charge after a 7-day free trial with no standard free tier. It’s also not updated as often as the others, and it’s not even optimized for larger phones yet, which seems odd. But on the other hand, it’s instantly more challenging. Again, it has its own measurement scale – the Mensa Brain Index (MBI.) You can also focus on certain areas. Find your weakness, tap on it in daily training and it’ll put those games at the top.
We like the Mensa brain training, because not only has it gone surprisingly under the radar in brain training, but it’s also one of the most simplistic and lightweight. If you’re not too bothered about checking various stats, figures, and graphs, then Mensa is for you. It’s easy to jump in. Perhaps because of this it’s much cheaper than the other options. If you’re looking for something reliable, simple, and cheap, then look no further. If you want something optimized, frequently updated, and with a wider range of games, try the ones towards the top of this roundup.
And that’s our pick of the brain training apps! It’s worth noting that the pricing structures we’ve listed are just guides and were what we were shown in-app or on the iTunes page at time of testing. In reality, brain training apps frequently change their pricing around and often put their services on sale.