/ Health, Technology

Can an app really ‘train’ your brain?

Brain training

It would seem that there’s an app out there for everything – including plenty that claim to train your brain. But can an app really help your brain out?

There’s a plethora of brain training apps making all sorts of grandiose claims to boost your IQ and your mental sharpness. Some even claim that ‘training’ will improve ‘critical cognitive skills’ that are proven to boost productivity, earning power and self-confidence.

These apps have had millions of downloads each, so they must be doing something right. But can their claims really be true?

App testing truth

In 2009 we asked manufacturers of brain training devices and software what the benefits of using their products were, and requested evidence to back up their claims.

Our experts concluded that much of the evidence for these claims was weak. The evidence showed that using a brain training app only made you better at that specific task – which is to be expected if you’re spending large amounts of time practicing to achieve a singular goal.

So seven years have passed since then, has anything changed? It seems not. Developers Lumos Labs have found themselves hit by a hefty $2m fine to settle claims over deceptive advertising for their brain training suite ‘Lumosity’.

The US Federal Trade Commission said that:

‘Lumosity preyed on consumers’ fears about age-related cognitive decline, suggesting their games could stave off memory loss, dementia, and even Alzheimer’s disease’

The app showed an image of a brain increasing in physical size, and even gave you a numerical ‘brain size’ rating for your efforts. The intended psychological effect is clear, but the company has been banned from making future claims about any benefits for real-world performance, age-related decline, or other health conditions until they have scientific backing.

Maybe it’s just a game though?

Surely we don’t really believe that an app like Lumosity can somehow beef up our brains? There’ll be many people using these apps/games as a boredom-killer – something to do on a long commute or while they’re waiting at the dentist.

That’s all well and good, but perhaps the lines have become blurred in these cases and it’s not really fair to have invested both your money and time against claims with little concrete evidence behind them.

You may have got the impression I’m more on the sceptical side of the fence (just the way I am I’m afraid!). I’m happy keeping my brain in shape with a regular dose of reading – a good Which? Convo debate comes in handy more often than not. And of course, as we advised back in 2009, regular physical exercise.

So have you ever used a brain training app? We’d love to hear your views (good and bad!)


This comment was removed at the request of the user

I have tried some simple computer games that were sold as “brain training”. However, they were soon abandoned in favour of other computer games that I enjoyed more – and that had been just sold as games.

As far as I can see, if a computer game involves the solution of a series of puzzles or tasks of increasing difficulty, playing it all the way to the end will help to develop “a can do attitude”. Once you have established “can do” + “want to” then you should be able to turn your mind to pretty much anything.

In general, I suspect that the best way to maintain “critical cognitive skills” is to use them regularly.

Ginette says:
16 January 2016

I do not disagree with a lot of what you said in the article and the two comments above. Except to point out that I have been playing Wizard a game devised between Apple and the University of Cambridge to help improve the memory recall of schizophrenic patients . I found it immensely helpful in improving my ability to focus on a single task without attempting to multi task and as a result I have found my levels of concentration have improved. In addition my memory recall has returned to the levels of when I was younger and for that I am grateful. Whereas I felt in a fog and unable to recall things, I had to act on them straight away, now I find my mind is reminding me if I have not completed a task.
Whilst the claims of brain training app firms may have intensified in the race for sales, I believe that there is something to be said for making and taking time to perform an activity to the exclusion of all else and this is where the brain receives a pleasurable workout as opposed to stressing and processing the thousands of messages it receives on a daily basis. I agree if you do not exercise your cognitive ability it will erode and I guess therefore how you choose to do that will be individual – some of your reference needing more challenge but for others these games may make a subtle yet effective difference in helping them manage the stresses of every day life. As neurosciencetists continue to explore the brain we may well learn that less is more for some and who knows there may even be more differences in gender and brain organisation that plays a part.

This comment was removed at the request of the user

You are not being specific enough. Memory training does work. Vocabulary training, when roots and origins are added does work. There are good teachers and poor teachers, likewise enthusiastic learners, and cynical resisters . I have no experience with apps, but as I have pointed out, its quality that matters.

dieseltaylor says:
17 January 2016

Can an app really ‘train’ your brain?

The answer is of course “Yes” . The question should perhaps more usefully put as are there any commercially available apps that can “train” your brain. If so in what aspects.

Duolingo is a language training application and it is certainly working for me. Learning a language is reckoned to be a good pursuit in”training” the brain. Widely available and free.

Should one buy a specific app for brain training – I doubt it as what they provide may be something you could actually do yourself anyway. As for Lumosity’s claims they remind one of the miracle pill salesman of the 1900’s.

I am not familiar with any brain training app but to be honest anything that gets people to think about thinking can never be all bad in my book. Perhaps Which? might add to this thread with examples of pursuits that do help people think ……. better …

Well -researched articles that fully explore a subject ?
Avoidance of evoking emotion instead of thought?
Illuminating use of statistics always providing base figures and percentages and the type of average used?

This comment was removed at the request of the user

Emotion is good . However emotion can be used for bad as well as good. Inflammatory news headlines, Nuremburg rallies, only give a very partial view of a problem, etc etc.

I am not suggesting one avoids emotion but that you realise that they can and are used against you. How do you think marketing works?

I fear there are too many people who do not reflect on what they see and hear – and then realise that perhaps they are not being given the full facts. That they are being steered to a particular view of life , of a product, or even to elicit a quick response.

This comment was removed at the request of the user

I’ve used Lumosity for a few years, beginning when I was a sleep-deprived new mum. There were numerous benefits: I gained in confidence on my maths skills, I learned that my eye/brain perceived things that I was not consciously aware of, I realised that a fifteen-minute daily habit was a very positive difference to my life (which I’ve extended into other areas, including physical exercise), and I learned to focus and concentrate (every time my mind wandered I’d make a mistake) so now I avoid multitasking in favour of concentrating on a single task. I realised early on that the ‘brain rating’ system was fairly skewed, but most assessment is, including state exams. It’s a shame that Lumosity have been found lacking in this way. I didn’t have a good experience with their customer services when I complained about my membership autorenewing. It seems like the site is on ‘autopilot’ these days, now I know why.

This comment was removed at the request of the user