Brain games: These 3 free apps make you even smarter than you already are

woman using cell phone

Plenty of people think all of our devices are making us dumb. Maybe that’s because some people can’t be bothered to look up from them while they’re walking down the street. And maybe they’re right. But there are plenty of apps out there that claim they can make you smarter, whether that means helping you recall words faster or improve your reading comprehension. I took a look at three popular titles to see how well they work. So, am I any smarter? Read on to find out.

Lumosity

Lumosity claims to offer more than just fun and games: It says its brain games are developed by a team of neuroscientists, who are offering “cutting edge neuroscience personalized for you.”

lumosity

Lumosity's games are simple and sleek.

The free app (Android, iOS, and Web) sets up your brain training program by asking you about your goals from its areas of expertise, which include memory, attention, speed, flexibility, and problem solving. You pick which areas are important to you and Lumosity puts you through a few tests. From those results, Lumosity creates your training plan, which it suggests you complete once a day for about 15 minutes.

Lumosity offers an impressive variety of games, but if you have a free account, there's a limit to how many you can access each day if you have a free account.

If you pay $12 per month (or $60 per year) for a Premium account, you can access 23 mobile games and 40 more online. Paying for a Premium account also gets you the ability to compare your test scores to others' (though the free version offers a little bit of context for your test results) and in-depth tracking of your results.

The games themselves are mostly enjoyable. Ebb and Flow features colored leaves moving; you have to swipe in different directions based on which direction they are traveling or pointing. Memory Matrix features patterns of tiles that you have to recreate. Speed Match requires you to identify whether the card shown features the same shape as the previous card – a task that’s harder than it sounds, and gets progressively more difficult as you play. You won’t mistake most of these titles for something mind-numbing like Candy Crush, and while that may be the point, these games are not as much fun, either.

elevate app punctuation test Elevate

Elevate's brain games are beautifully designed but feel more like work than play. 

I honestly can’t tell if Lumosity is making me smarter, but I did feel more alert after playing it. I just wish the free version offered more variety.

Elevate

Elevate is similar to Lumosity in many ways. This free app (Android and iOS; no Web version) calls itself “your personal brain trainer” and provides daily challenges (created by experts in neuroscience and cognitive thinking) to improve your comprehension and focus. But where Lumosity uses patterns and shapes to sharpen your mind, Elevate has a strong bent toward communication, with games that revolve around spoken or written words.

Like Lumosity, Elevate begins by asking you which skills you’d like to improve. Choices include articulating thoughts more clearly, improving focus while listening and reading, improving problem solving abilities, retaining more of what you read and hear, improving your mental vocabulary, and processing information faster. I selected all of them (why not!) and took the brief test the app offers before setting up my personal training plans. Questions ranged from quick math calculations to identifying misspelled words and associating words with images. After the test, I was given my score in each category, which was useful, but I was curious to see how I compared to other Elevate users—something Lumosity shares with you.

Elevate’s games look flashier than Lumosity’s, with animated rewards and bright colors, but they also feel more like work. Processing improves reading comprehension by delivering written information to you at increasing speeds and testing you on specific details. Brevity asks you to identify unnecessary words to make sentences more concise. As a writer and former editor, I was relieved to see that I aced this task—and I remembered its lessons as I was writing this review. Both are useful, but they felt a lot more like schoolwork than games. Still, I got more out of them than the average game.

personal zen

Personal Zen's graphics are pretty basic, but playing the game is calming.

Elevate’s free version limits how many games you can play per day. Upgrading to the $5-per-month Pro version gets you access to all 29 of Elevate’s games at once, as well as access to 10 Pro-only games and Member rankings.     

Personal Zen

After spending time on Elevate’s and Lumnosity’s timed tests, I was ready for some zen – some Personal Zen, that is. Like those two titles, this free iOS app claims to be based on cutting-edge neuroscience. Instead of making you mentally sharper, however, it’s designed to reduce stress and anxiety.

Personal Zen does that by forcing you to focus on the positive—quite literally, as that’s the goal of the game. It shows you two faces, one happy and one angry, and you earn points by following the happy face and ignoring the angry one. The two faces disappear in holes in the grass, and you have to trace a trail set by the happy one. The app’s creator says that it’s based on the concept of “cognitive bias modification,” which helps people shift their focus away from things that inspire negative thoughts to those that inspire positive ones.

The app proved promising in a study published in Clinical Psychological Science, where it was shown to reduce anxiety and stress. I can’t say for sure that it did the same for me, but I did feel calmer after spending some time playing in the grass—even if it was virtual grass.

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