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For our bodies we have gyms, and for our minds we have...brain fitness apps

Mark Sullivan | Jan. 14, 2014
Interest in "the quantified self" and a growing body of clinical research seem to point toward a bright future for brain fitness tech.

Admit it. You've had a few senior moments. Struggling to remember a key fact that would have served as a cup of shut-the-hell-up for your egghead brother-in-law. Straining to remember the name of that guy from the New York office. Leaving your phone in a cab in San Francisco.

Actually this kind of stuff happens to people of all ages, and it can be caused by poor mental fitness. But of course, there's an app for that.

The first thing experts tell you about brain fitness tech is that the mind needs a workout to stay sharp and feel good, just as the body does. That sounded "truthy" to me, but I wanted to know whether a real scientific rationale exists to back up the claim.

Your brain really does need a workout
The answer is yes. The exercises in brain fitness apps like BrainHQ and Lumosity produce real physical and bioelectrical changes in the brain, says Dr. Argye Hillis, director of cerebrovascular neurology at Johns Hopkins Hospital. She explained it to me this way:

"The brain is remarkably plastic. It's capable of making new connections and becoming better and better at older ones. As humans, we continue to learn as we grow older. We learn by changing the strengths of the connections between various neurons in the brain. When we learn new things, we are forcing one neuron to activate with another one. The more often we do that, the less energy it takes to make that connection."

Of the brain fitness software I've been playing with, mobile apps like Brain Age and A Clockwork Brain offer a small set of exercises — often a gamified memory or focus exercise — while subscription-based sites like Lumosity and BrainHQ offer a wide array of exercises that focus on different sets of neural pathways in the brain.

These apps and sites usually offer some combination of problem-solving, short-term memory, quick decision-making, cognition, attention, and multitasking games. Some of them, like bLife, include touchy-feely kinds of tools that promote relaxation, positive thinking, and mental well-being.

So which are worth recommending? Since so many of the products are based on peer-reviewed studies of brain fitness tools, I don't doubt that numerous apps and sites are effective. I chose the ones that have been around the longest, enjoy the best reputations among users and experts, have the most science behind them, and offer the best designs.

Above all, good brain fitness tools should offer a careful mixture of real work and real play — the work to truly improve mental fitness, and the play to keep you coming back for more. Just as with physical workouts, the frequency of your workouts is as important as their intensity.


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