Calm Was Apple’s App of the Year Last Year: But do such apps work?

Calm was Apple’s App of the Year for 2017.

For decades, two utterly wrong statements circulated the globe: “people only use 10 percent of their brain” and “humanity has reached its potential.” Science says otherwise on both counts, but the pre-internet era didn’t allow most “non-science” people to understand the lingo. However, thanks to the boom of the web, scientific studies became widely accessible in common language.

Gamifying the Mind

Mind apps use gamification to create ease of use and appeal to a broad user base.

Increasingly, more people became aware that the brain is “plastic” — it can be modeled and improved. Everyone, from CEOs to poker players and creatives, began looking for ways to sharpen their minds and get the edge in their job or even in doing everyday tasks. Thus, the world of brain apps was born. But is there any merit to the bold claims that such apps make? Before answering this question, let’s see the most popular ones.

The Big Players

Some brain training apps focus on solving tasks while others, on spiritual health. But they all share the same selling point: better cognitive functions.

The market for mind-improving apps is enormous, and many are “big.” Here are a few of them.

Calm

As of the beginning of this year, the Calm app valued at $250 million. On its website, Calm boasts itself as “the perfect mindfulness app for beginners […] to help […] manage anxiety, lower stress and sleep better.”

After its huge success, the folks behind Calm built around the app what Business Insider dubbed a mini-industry. A Calm book and a “sleep mist” are available for purchase to complement the app, along with other extras such as master classes and “The Calm Schools Initiative,” which provides “free mindfulness training tools to every teacher in the world.”

Primed Mind

What’s fascinating about this app is that while most others target a broad audience, Primed Mind is the brainchild of poker-pro Fedor Holz and even developed with poker players in mind.

And while the app is far from specific to the card game of poker, its guidance is narrated by Elliot Roe who’s known within the mindfulness industry for his work with poker players and UFC fighters. But even Holtz acknowledges that the app works for anybody given that it covers broad topics, such as sleep, fitness and achieving goals. “I think the role of mindset is huge in anything,” said Holz for PokerNews.

Headspace

“A few minutes could change your whole day,” is how Headspace welcomes its website visitors.

Its co-creator and narrator, Andy Puddicombe, “in his early twenties, […] cut his sports science degree short to become a Buddhist monk.” Puddicombe then spent the next 10 years traveling across Asia, Australia and Russia. After coming back to “lay life,” Puddicombe found a partner for his idea to teach mindfulness in Rich Pierson — an advertising professional who at the time was looking for effective ways to manage stress.

Today, the company is estimated to have a value of over $250 million and has become a household name on the market for guided meditation apps.

Apps that promise a boost of brain capacity have amassed tens of millions of downloads.

Lumosity

Lumosity is among the more popular representatives in the category of “brain-boosting” apps. Supposedly, the app helps users to “sharpen memory, attention, flexibility, speed and problem-solving […] no matter [the] age or skills level.” Now, it also has a mindfulness training feature like the apps that specialize in meditation.

To many, Lumosity is the app that started the whole brain-boosting gamification craze, and in 10 years since its launch, it boasts “95 million members,” according to the app’s website.

The folks behind Lumosity also boast the scientific part of their product: scientists helped to develop the app, which uses scientific studies as its basis, and that “[t]here have been over 20 peer-reviewed publications in academic journals using Lumosity games or assessments.”

And speaking of poker, the world’s most successful poker player, Daniel Negreanu, is a fan of Lumosity and often tweets about it. “If you are looking to exercise your brain, I suggest meditation, yoga, playing Lumosity online and using an app called Elevate. Enjoy!”, he said in a tweet.

Elevate

Elevate, mentioned above, is another popular app that promises its users to help them “stay sharp, build confidence and boost productivity.”

The man behind Elevate, Jesse Pickard, initially thought of making an app that helps students prepare for SATs, but instead, decided to broaden its reach by creating a product that caters to a wider user base. Thus, the difference with Lumosity is that Elevate focuses on developing school-like subjects, such as writing, speaking and math.

Those behind Elevate, too, boast how science backs the benefits of using the app. Elevate’s website features a downloadable study done in 2015, according to which, “Elevate users improved 69 percent more than nonusers, and the more they played Elevate, the better their results.” In 2014, Elevate won the iPhone App of the Year.

Peak

Peak completes the trifecta of most popular brain-boosting apps.

The app is supposed to “challenge the skills that matter to you most with games that test your focus, memory, problem-solving, mental agility and more.”

Just like the other two, Peak scientists from renowned institutions helped to develop the app. In 2014, Peak made it on Apple’s Best iPhone Apps list.

What does science say?

Scientists have weighed in on the possible effectiveness of the mind apps craze.

So, brain-boosting apps promise us that we’ll better remember our shopping lists, do faster calculations in our head and be more focused in our work. But do they deliver? Science is skeptical about the validity of brain-boosting apps but is more optimistic about “mindfulness” ones like Calm.

After much buildup around brain apps, researchers (other than the ones working with the companies producing the apps) set out to prove or disprove their effectiveness.

Last year, the Journal of Neuroscience published a study titled “No Effect of Commercial Cognitive Training on Neural Activity During Decision-Making.” The study included 128 subjects who for 10 weeks were using either Lumosity or “ordinary” web games — ones that are not meant to boost brain performance. In the end, the study concluded that there’s no meaningful benefit in using brain-boosting apps.

In 2016, a year before the study above, the Federal Trade Commission (FTC) imposed a $2 million fine on the creator of Lumosity, Lumos Labs, for “false advertising.” According to the FTC, the company didn’t have proof that its app helped in protecting against Alzheimer’s and in doing better at school as it advertised.

But it seems that not all brain-boosting apps are more talk than walk. According to an article by Fast Company, brain apps might work if they train the brain in the right way.

According to the article, brain-training programs, such as BrainHQ and Cognifit do have science-backed effectiveness in that they work on users’ processing speed.

Processing speed is the brain’s ability to process data. It’s one area that can be trained by taking advantage of neuroplasticity or the brain’s ability to change its internal networking.

“The result, as the science has shown, says Mahncke [BrainHQ’s CEO], is that people who undertake plasticity-based brain-training programs ‘notice feeling sharper, quicker and more able to notice the important details of everyday life,” says the article.

Mindfulness Apps

UC Berkeley’s Greater Good Magazine ran a piece on what science says about mindfulness apps. In general, multiple studies confirmed that mindfulness apps resulted in better cognitive responses, i.e., feeling calmer and more compassionate. One study even put Headspace against Lumosity and several other apps and found that “Headspace users reduced their mind-wandering […] and became kinder and less aggressive compared to other app users.”

There you have it. People from all walks of life — advertising, poker, entrepreneurship — entrust their brain performance in apps. If you are looking for ways to do the same though, you need to pick the right app and be patient about reshaping your brain’s inner works.

Speaking of patience, what if you are looking for ways to de-stress and be more attentive to your life? You are more in luck as studies show that mindfulness apps do work, albeit not as much as advertised.