Here's a collection of the best brain training programs that are backed by research that I have seen in my 18 years in the wellness field.
There are four key areas of performance that can be enhanced through brain training:
- cognitive or mental fitness,
- emotional fitness,
- creative or peak performance, and
- sleep management.
Most articles focus on just one benefit of brain training: improving memory or cognitive skills through brain training apps or games. But for the best results in any one category, I recommend a program that combines strengthening all aspects of brain performance:
- body functioning such as sleep and peak states because they all work together and support each other.
We all have had the experience of memorizing or rehearsing a speech, then not getting enough sleep and struggling to perform the next day. For this article, I have broken down suggestions based on four groups who often seek brain training:
- anti-aging / mental fitness,
- work and school performance,
- stress management, and
- emotional fitness and regulation.
What is a brain training program?
What defines a brain training program? A brain training program allows us and our unconscious brain to learn new habits that allow us to re-train ourselves.
Though the term brain plasticity has been around since William James coined it in the late 1800s, the idea of brain training as concept has grown out of the discoveries over the last 30 years in neurology and neuropsychology, specifically due to the growth of brain imaging technologies that can prove the brain's rehabilitation abilities.
Neuroplasticity is the concept that the brain can learn new things and, as a result, change where it houses functions and grow new structures in the brain. The main communication pathways of the brain, called neurons, can form new pathways and generate new cells throughout the human lifespan.
Anyone older than 40 will remember a time when neurologist thought that the brain was actually a fixed system, which meant, for example, that damage from a stroke to the language center meant that the functioning was lost for good.
The discoveries about neuroplasticity are the equivalent in brain studies to when explorers discovered that the world was round instead of flat!
Out of these discoveries the brain training industry has grown both to help with rehabilitation and also to optimize health and wellness. In this article we'll explore the latter goals.
Do Brain Training Programs Work?
There are some brain training programs that yield more results than others. Given the infancy of this area of health and wellness, there will be more and more brain training studies conducted in the coming years.
Below I will highlight which programs have results confirmed by research.
The biggest reason programs don't work is because the individual doesn't do it, does it too infrequently or stops before he or she can experience the full results. Brain training programs only work if you work them.
My main role in coaching clients is not figuring out what the right program is for them, but rather helping them stick with their schedule long enough to see results. In general, the best results come with more focused repetition of the new behaviors at first, then tapering off to maintenance training over time. Like with any form of learning, more frequency leads to seeing the results faster.
Anyone who has ever tried to learn a language knows this but we need to be reminded.
Brain Training Programs for Anti-Aging and Mental Fitness
The main concerns of individuals in this category are that they want to maintain their mental agility and cognitive functioning as they age.
Most people here aren't so much interested in improving skills as not losing them! This goal includes:
- memory-both short-term, and
- working memory-focus and
- speed of problem solving.
For these goals, brain training apps are a good start. Luminosity, which is the best known application, has been around long enough that their games have been used in 20 peer-reviewed publications in academic journals.
They have consistently shown to improve memory and processing speed. With only 15 minutes a day of training, people can see improvement. The sessions are fun, and they give assessments so you can track your performance.
The other very popular brain training app is CogniFit, which is a smartphone app design for improving memory and concentration.
There is yet to be solid research showing these games work.
Another way to enhance concentration and memory is to learn a new language. Though most of the research on mental fitness and learning a new language is with younger adults and children, the principles of neuroplasticity imply that it benefits adults in similar ways.
Reseachers have found correlations between knowing more than one language and delays in the onset of dementia.
Brain training apps can be part of the overall program but neuroscientists encourage combining different modalities that have a positive impact on cognitive health. These include sleep management, eating a proper diet that contains brain foods, and regular exercise.
To summarize a brain training programs for mental fitness ideally includes:
- Good sleep hygiene, which means 7+ hours of sleep per night. Research show people who get less than seven have higher rates of degenerative illness. Download our sleep management e-book if you could benefit from reminders of good sleep practices.
- Brain training app like Luminosity or learning a new language 15 minutes a day
- Eating a diet that includes the brain foods
- Regular exercise, such as the HIIT program, (high intensity interval training) which research has shown effective and only requires 15-20 minutes a day
Brain Training Programs For Optimal Work and School Performance
This group of brain trainers want to perform at their best mentally to outperform peers and reach new mental goals.
The goals include cognitive performance:
- mental focus and efficiency,
- processing speed,
- memory and
- learning new skills while being able to sustained energy.
These goals are similar to general mental fitness but with an added brain-drainer: they usually also need support managing their stress.
Research shows that stress interferes with work and school performance alike. The American College Health Association reports that more than 80% of students feel overwhelmed and 65% of students seek counseling due to stress and worry.
This group often also needs brain training programs that to help them manage their executive functioning. Before starting with a new behavioral program for task and time management, it is more fruitful to start with tools that help refresh you so that you can focus and learn a new behavioral program such as the SMARTS program.
In order of importance, here's my list of the items in an overall brain training program, for optimizing executive functioning and school performance:
- Get enough sleep. Not sure how much sleep you or your children need? Check here.
- Eat a diet that give you sustained energy throughout the day. I recommend Dr. Mark Hyman's website, which is full of information and easy-to-follow steps for slowly changing your diet away from sugars and processed foods. And eat the foods the brain needs to work properly and repair itself.
- Get regular exercise. It helps us de-stress, regulate our mood and energy.
- Try neurofeedback. This form of brain training specifically helps us to support or mental and emotional fitness. It works directly with reading the brain wave activity and feeding back real-time information about our habits, especially around the stress response. I have known people use it for peak performance in music. One composer regularly does neurofeedback sessions when he is in the heart of composing a new piece. He told me: "It's like it dissolves the gates that hold me back from creative flow."
- Cultivate friendships or spend time with friends who are trustworthy, kind and make you laugh. For de-stressing and also helping keep perspective on your self-value outside of work or academic performance. Knowing there are people who care about you for you, not because of your achievements, is very important for overall wellness and will most likely help you achieve your goals.
Brain Training Programs for Stress Management and Emotional Fitness
Stress management and emotional fitness are in the same group here because a large part of stress is emotional. The emotional or reptilian brain rules how we respond to problems when we, which is mostly this primitive brain, perceive them as threatening.
The stress response, which is an important part of healthy brain functioning, consists of parts of the brain that we do not consciously control. It is part of our survival mechanism and its job is to keep us from incurring serious bodily harm.
What mental health experts have discovered is that this part of the brain also becomes habituated in its desire to use energy efficiently and it takes short cuts and in a millisecond can interpret the current moment to be a dangerous one. When this part of ourselves is in charge you'll know because your thoughts, feelings and behaviors will reflect the strategy of flight/fight/freeze: run from the problem, attack it, or play dead.
Examples of flight are to spontaneously quit a job or walk out of the house during an argument. Examples of fight are spontaneously yelling when it's not necessary to communicate an idea.
The freeze response can be staring numbly at our phone for hours not wanting to engage the world. Or thinking: why bother, it's hopeless.
Emotional fitness is reseting this stress habit. Everyone has the stress response habit to some degree and the more flexibility of our emotional response, and the more our emotional responses are in alignment with the here-and-now needs, the more emotional fitness we have and the less 'stressed-out' we are.
Put simply, the more in control we are of how we respond to situations and problems the more emotionally flexible we are. And the less the reactive primitive brain is in charge of how we view and respond to the world.
The brain training programs recommended for this group wanting to manage stress and their emotions, include elements for mental fitness but with a couple of added tools for emotional health.
- Sleep, sleep, sleep. Emotional resilience and regulation is supported by sleep. Need convincing? Spend some time with a sleep-deprived four-year-old.
- Exercise. The HIIT program listed above is easy to do and doesn't require a gym or a lot of time. I once had a conversation with a psychiatrist who said the number one prescription she gave her patients was regular exercise.
- Minimize your sugar intake. The blood-sugar rollercoaster from not eating regularly and eating too much white foods and sugary foods and drinks is significant contributor to the peaks and valleys of our mood.
- Try a mindfulness meditation program. At the end of the day, when you're lying in bed, try a guided body scan meditation, or a three-minute meditation first thing in the morning. Meditation is very helpful for helping us separate our awareness from our thoughts and emotions. This skill is essential for emotional fitness and resiliency. It's also proven to help lower your stress and I have found clients who end the day with a body scan fall asleep faster.
Neurofeedback for emotional fitness. When you are used to responding with the fight/flight/freeze emotional energy giving yourself and your brain the support to see these patterns can be key for resetting them. In combination with getting sleep, exercising and eating whole foods, neurofeedback is a great addition for helping us reset those habits. Learn more from testimonials by people who have used it as part of their emotional wellness regime.
How long should i do a brain training program?
There is no absolute answer to how long you should do a brain training program but here are some suggestions about frequency and duration. There is some truth to the adage: it takes 21 days to change a habit. My observation is that clients fail at their programs not because they won't bring them benefit, but because they quit before the benefits can be fully experienced.
Start with one aspect of your brain training program for 21 days and, if you feel you have mastered that aspect you can add a second one. So, if you are training for mental fitness and you have horrible sleep habits, you might want to start with reading about good sleep hygiene and practice it for 21 days. It does take time to re-wire our habits. I have witness people try a new sleep regimen and after a week say, "it isn't working." The only thing not working is the client's expectations.
If you feel overwhelmed about starting any regime that is self-initiated, then I would say start with neurofeedback training. I have seen people do a few months of just neurofeedback without any other changes, then found themselves ready to change their sleep routine, look at the diet they eat, or get back to the gym.
In short, start with one part of your brain training regime. Try it for 21 days and then decide how much benefit it's bringing you.