Your Brain on Apps: The Best Apps for Improving Cognitive Functioning

The brain is like a muscle — when you train it, it gets stronger, with improved cognitive functioning. An article by CBS News reports that simple brain teasers help prevent the brain plaques that build up in Alzheimer’s patients, which is why the elderly are often encouraged to play games, solve crosswords, read, and write. Games can help with brain health and your memory because they force the player to adapt to increasing difficulty levels of play. As the player racks up more points, the game becomes harder, thus testing the brain’s limits.

There are games and apps that cater to virtually any mental task, such as visual acuity, problem-solving and strategy, logistics, spatial perception, memory, and reflexes. Keeping your brain sharp involves a myriad of things, from eating the right diet and exercising on a regular basis to embracing education, and it is an ongoing process. However, there are dozens of apps that assist in the development of cognitive functioning with occasional usage. Considering the amount of time the average American spends on their iPhone or iPad, it wouldn’t hurt to take a few minutes out of your day to flex your brain muscles through one of these brain-centric apps.

General Brain Teasers

The Impossible Test: The Impossible Test app has a remarkably simple format, with questions and tasks that will keep your brain nimble. The game provides you with instructions and it often takes a moment of creative consideration to deduce how the task can be accomplished. For example, it will show you a picture of a check mark and an x-mark and ask you to “Touch the wrong one, it’s actually right.” The game challenges your impulses and forces you to think on a more analytical level than you may be inclined. The original game comes with 70 questions, but there are bonus packs for various seasons with new material. The app is free through iTunes.

More Brain Exercise with Dr. Kawashima HD: This brain-exercise app was developed by NAMCO, the same minds behind Pac-Man, so you know the interface and playability is more than adequate. Dr. Kawashima hosts the game, navigating the player through quizlets, a brain age identifier, multiplayer challenges, Sudoku, and more. The iPad version is equipped with HD graphics, rendering a stunning display. Your progress is monitored and plotted along a calendar so you can visually see yourself getting smarter, all for $6.99 through the iTunes app store.

Speed Brain Pro: If you’re looking for a game that more simplistically gauges your reflexes and memory, Speed Brain Pro is the ideal app. The entire game consists of moving, numerical targets that you tap with your fingers on a timed basis. Tap incorrectly and the sequence starts over, so not only must you have a deft mind, but also be able to handle the pressure of making fast choices with complete accuracy. The interface, while simple and user-friendly, leaves something to be desired on a design front. However, if you want an easy-to-use speed accuracy test for your brain, it gets the job done for $1.99.

Brain Wave The Brain Wave app by Banzai Labs comes with a bit of controversy, as it uses a specific method for stimulating the brain known as binaural beats. These tones supposedly can induce targeted states of mind, from relaxation, to euphoria, to focus and concentration. Your brain waves pick up on the frequencies — which mainly sound like ambient music — to create the ideal environment for learning or absorbing material, making it a perfect study aid or reading companion. Each nuance in the composition can be adjusted, so if you feel like any component is too shrill, simply tweak it out of the tune. It operates on a timer for as little as 10 minutes of sound to eight full hours. It costs $1.99 via iTunes.

Brain Trainer: Lumosity’s Brain Trainer app is based on legitimate studies conducted by neuroscientists at universities such as Stanford, UCSF, and Berkeley, so it doesn’t take cognitive exercise lightly. With a myriad of games that test your memory, reflexes, attention span, and problem-solving skills, Brain Trainer hopes to grant some of its 10 million users with increased mood, memory, analytical skills, and brain agility. The app is designed to be played only a few minutes per day, much like strength training, in which the mental capacity is gradually built up over time. As you progress, your Brain Performance Index is charted on a graph. The basic app is free, while the unlimited version is $49.99.

Improve Your Memory Now by Gary Small: Gary Small’s “Improve Your Memory Now” app boasts that you will have practical results from game-play, including the ability to remember the names and faces of all of your acquaintances, remember when particular dates are, and recall phone numbers. Author of The Memory Bible and director of UCLA s Memory and Aging Research Center, Dr. Small created the app making use of audio training to learn what nutritional choices are most effective for a healthy brain, taking memory exercises to increase your memory’s power, learning the entitled “Look, Snap, and Connect” technique for memorizing faces, and guided relaxation methods to promote a stable mind. It costs $13.99 on iTunes.

Word, Number, and Logistics Games

Sudoku: With a game like Sudoku, it’s not all that important to have big, flashy graphics. The brain benefits revolve around solving a single numerical puzzle, in which numbers are multiplied to fill in individual boxes. Finger Arts’ Sudoku is a free app on the iTunes store containing thousands of puzzles for your enjoyment at varying difficulty levels. You win a game by making less than four mistakes and the app is built to conduct challenges with friends who also have the app. For those wishing to flex their brain’s mathematical muscles, Sudoku is the top choice.

New York Times Crosswords: The New York Times’ crossword is renowned for being a daily favorite by many of its subscribers, and now it is mobile with the New York Times Crosswords app. Not only can you play the current daily crossword, but you can challenge yourself by playing one of its 6,000 archived puzzles from past issues. The app allows you to write in “pen” or “pencil” depending on how confident you are, you can play against your friends, and if you’re completely stumped, the app will reveal a few or all of the results to you. The first week of usage on the app is free, and then you have a choice if subscribing monthly for $2.99, every six months for $9.99, or for the entire year at $16.99. Otherwise, you can play for free with the weekly crossword, but won’t have access to backlogged content.

Words with Friends: One of the most popular word game apps to date, Words with Friends is an app by Zynga that greatly resembles Scrabble for your mobile phone. You play against your friends or random opponents and the game has full compatibility with Facebook, so you can either play through the website or search through your Facebook friends for an opponent. All of the regular rules of Scrabble for triple and double word scores apply and you can play up to 20 games at a time. Words with Friends causes you to think of words you can make with your given tiles and space on the board, in a game that greatly utilizes your brain. The app comes in a free version with ads or can be purchased without ads for $2.99.

SimplePhysics: The SimplePhysics app by Andrew Garrison is a puzzle game in which you build structures with the laws of physics in mind. The game gives you challenges, such as building a rooftop capable of holding up to five feet of snow, and you sketch out the beams in a way you think would accomplish the task. After you finish, a stimulation will put your creation to the test to see if it holds up under the varying circumstances. Yet, it doesn’t just take the strength of the structure into consideration. You will also have a budget that must be followed, with the most cost effective structure taking the prize. SimplePhysics works a part of your brain that you may not test in everyday life — the part that makes engineers thrive. For $1.99, you can purchase it on iTunes.

MindSnacks: Arguably the best app for learning a foreign language, the MindSnacks apps come in French, German, Chinese, Italian, Portuguese, Spanish, and English varieties. They also have an app that helps with SAT vocabulary. Many modern linguists will note that memorization is an inefficient way for learning a language, as the mind doesn’t retain it beyond the testing point. However, MindSnacks takes a different approach by teaching languages through a series of games which impart vocabulary, reading, writing, listening, and conversation skills. New levels can be unlocked when the player wins certain challenges, and there are over 1,400 different words to master with each language option. Best off, all language varieties are entirely free.

Unblock Me: Unblock Me is a puzzle game reminiscent of the sliding picture puzzles found in dental office waiting rooms everywhere. Your objective is to get the red tile off of the board by sliding the other blocks out of the way. It comes in four different difficulty levels spanning from beginner to expert and has 4,200 puzzles to conquer. You can play in relaxed mode or challenged mode, depending on whether you wish to be timed or break a sweat when playing. The app is free.

Creativity Boosters

Evernote: Evernote provides a seamless way for keeping track of any and all ideas. You can take a picture with your camera, voice recording, make notes, or to do lists right on the app and add them to your searchable library with accessibility from your mobile device, tablet, or home computer. Any tagged item can be shared with friends, whom you connect with over the app in a social networking style, and it has full integration with platforms such as Facebook and Twitter. Evernote promotes productivity and creativity, giving you an access point for ideas as well as a storage point for you own. Use it for anything from grocery lists, to taking notes in class, to noting shapes in nature you’d like to reference in your latest painting. It’s effectively a brain outside your brain that never forgets. You can have it for free through iTunes.

Instagram: If you aren’t already familiar with Instagram, you have to be living under a rock, but if you have heard of it, you may not have considered how helpful it can be for getting your creative juices flowing. Instagram has become a social networking platform in and of itself, where users upload and share their own photos. In the simplest terms, you snap a photo with your iPhone or iPad, apply one of dozens of filters to it, and upload it for the world to see. It can truly change the way you look at simple things, rewiring the brain to look for that perfect photography moment. In a world of visual culture, Instagram brings people together to share their unique visions. The app is free and caters to over 50 million users.

Inspiro: A common creative writing exercise entails creating a story out of a few words or sentences. The Inspiro app mimics this exercise, generating ideas that can be used not only for writing, but for stimulating your imagination. A simple phrase is generated from a randomized component, providing a launching point for actors looking to do improvisations, artists trying to find their muse, teachers coming up with creative lesson plans, or simply daydreamers looking for their next moment of whimsicality. For $2.99, the Inspiro app reveals that the power of words is still a force to be reckoned with.

TED: Speaking of inspiration, nothing quite inspires a person to make a difference or think outside the box than hearing another person’s speech at the TED conferences. The TED app provides an archive of past and current conferences, giving the user access to over 1,100 TEDTalk videos. The app is easily navigable, in which you may search by keyword, popularity, themes, or similar talks. You may share your favorites with your friends and create playlists. The app is free on iTunes.

Adobe Ideas: Adobe products provide the backbone for most creative projects, as the forerunner of design and illustrative technology. Adobe Ideas is just a little app for the iPhone or iPad, but you can think of it as a small-scale Photoshop in which you can make pretty elaborate illustrations. Some of the tools you might be familiar with from other Adobe products include vector-based drawing tools, the eyedropper tool, variable-size brushes, color schemes, layering, and a large-scale canvas. After you finish your creation, you can email it to yourself as a low-res PDF, allowing for your work to be shared with others. The app costs $9.99 on iTunes.