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Whether you’re struggling with your work-from-home routine or are feeling overwhelmed by the onslaught of day-to-day stress, keeping your mind active can help you to cope. Staying mentally active can also reduce the risk for cognitive decline as you get older.

When it comes to your mental health, keeping your brain busy has become more important than ever. “Staying busy helps us focus on the here and now, and distracts us from our worries,” says Dr. Divyansu Patel, a psychiatry specialist at TeleMed2U.

Want to take steps toward keeping your brain busy? We’ve got apps for you to try.

Apps, which might range from solving puzzles to learning new languages, can make a big difference in your day-to-day life.

For example, Sam Nabil, the lead therapist for Naya Clinics, says some studies highlight that the practice of learning a new language contributes to cognitive plasticity and improves the brain’s ability to absorb new information.

Meanwhile, linked studies from 2018 and 2019 of more than 19,000 participants found that regularly playing puzzles and completing crosswords or word-based games actually improves brain function.

Mindful meditation — as little as 10 minutes per day — can calm the mind and support body health through positive influences on blood pressure and levels of cortisol (the stress hormone).

So, it stands to reason that finding ways to re-engage and use your brain, such as learning a new language, may help counteract pandemic brain fog.

Read on to find out which apps can help your brain stay busy.

To compile this list, we consulted healthcare professionals, including psychologists and psychiatrists, to discuss optimal activities and apps to help keep people’s brains busy.

We read reviews and recommendations from app users to ascertain which apps were popular, and which appeared to have reported results in these areas:

  • Did users find their stress diminished after using the app?
  • Did the app provide a useful routine?
  • Did users learn a new skill?
  • Was the app useful during the pandemic?

Choosing the best app for your brain really comes down to your personal goals.

Here are some things to consider:

  • Are you trying to sharpen your cognitive abilities and learn new, productive habits?
  • Are you looking for an app to help you manage stress and anxiety or help you sleep?
  • Do you prefer to listen to workshops, personal anecdotes, and inspirational stories to help boost your drive and motivation?

The answers to these questions can help you choose the best app for you.

Many people also find it beneficial to engage with more than one brain app regularly, since different apps help sharpen varying skills, and they really complement each other. For instance, for an overall brain boost, you can learn how to meditate via Headspace while also improving your memory and focus with Lumosity.

Best overall

Lumosity

  • iPhone rating: 4.7 stars
  • Android rating: 4.5 stars
  • Cost: free for basic subscription or $11.99 per month for standard subscription
  • Who it’s best for: anyone who wants to improve memory and focus

Lumosity claims it will help users “improve memory, increase focus, and feel sharper” with its daily brain-training exercises. The app is suitable for anyone of any age or ability level, and will even adapt to your strengths and weaknesses.

User reviews suggest that Lumosity helps with concentration, mindfulness, and cognitive ability.

One reviewer felt they’d “realized positive results in 2 weeks,” while another revealed that the app had helped with their focus, processing speed, math calculations, memory, mental agility, and flexibility.

The app’s basic subscription is free. It allows users to play three brain games per day. Standard monthly subscriptions start at $11.99.

Pros

  • great ratings
  • new games added regularly

Cons

  • games can be difficult to see on the phone
  • free version is limited

Best for free features

Duolingo

  • iPhone rating: 4.7 stars
  • Android rating: 4.5 stars
  • Cost: free
  • Who it’s best for: anyone who wants to learn a new language or brush up on their language skills

Duolingo can be a great app for anyone who’s ever wanted to learn another language. The app offers “bite-sized” lessons in more than 35 languages, featuring minigames and a community of more than 300 million users.

Reviewers suggest that Duolingo is a good way to start learning a new language or to refresh your knowledge.

One user wrote, “Duolingo won’t make you fluent but it is a great starting place and language practice tool to have when first encountering a new language.”

The app is free to use. A paid subscription will get you access to more features.

Pros

  • provides language lessons in an easy-to-digest format
  • huge variety of languages

Cons

  • some language courses are more robust than others
  • some users complain about excessive reminder emails and notifications

Best for reducing anxiety

Calm

  • iPhone rating: 4.8 stars
  • Android rating: 4.4 stars
  • Cost: $14.99 per month or $69.99 annually
  • Who it’s best for: anyone who wants to learn about mindfulness and meditation

Calm may help reduce anxiety and help improve sleep quality and focus via mind exercises, meditations, music, and sleep stories. The app features a slew of famous voices, including Matthew McConaughey, Kate Winslet, and Idris Elba, to help you relax.

User reviews list reduced anxiety, better sleep, guided meditations, and self-care as reasons they enjoy Calm.

One user said, “It has changed my perspectives and state-of-mind in ways that have been beneficial to every aspect of my everyday life and well-being.”

Some features are free for all users. Full access to the app costs $69.99 annually for a premium subscription, or $14.99 a month.

Pros

  • easy-to-use interface
  • app is regularly updated

Cons

  • guided meditations are more suited to beginners

Best for strengthening cognitive skills

PsychologyCompass

  • iPhone rating: 5.0 stars
  • Android rating: 4.1 stars
  • Cost: $20 per month or $200 annually
  • Who it’s best for: anyone who wants to sharpen their memory and attention span

PsychologyCompass calls itself “a cognition coach in your pocket” that can help you overcome anxiety, improve leadership, and enhance memory and learning.

Dr. Elizabeth Gilbert, the head of research at PsychologyCompass, says the app is “designed to strengthen cognitive skills with short weekly lessons that become helpful, automatic habits with practice.”

One user said of the app, “Very helpful for seeing your mental cognitive abilities improve with simple practices.” Another called it “easy to use and navigate.”

A monthly plan is $20. It costs $200 annually.

Pros

  • app is simple to use
  • tips are all supported by science

Cons

  • no habit tracker available
  • no integration with calendar apps to add your to-dos

Best for guided meditations

Headspace

  • iPhone rating: 4.9 stars
  • Android rating: 4.5 stars
  • Cost: $12.99 per month or $69.99 annually
  • Who it’s best for: anyone who wants to start or maintain a meditation practice

Headspace provides “hundreds of guided meditations on everything from stress to focus to relationships.” It also offers music and soundscapes to aid sleep; short, guided meditations; and longer courses.

User reviews claim the app helps with focus, sleep, and increased productivity. One user called the app “life-changing,” while another revealed that it had helped with their “anger issues.”

Full access to the app, known as Headspace Plus, costs $12.99 per month, or $69.99 per year. The free version has some assets but is much more limited.

Pros

  • you can track your progress directly in the app
  • the app provides reminders to practice

Cons

  • more focused on beginners
  • more expensive than other apps

Best for reducing stress

Ten Percent Happier

  • iPhone rating: 4.8 stars
  • Android rating: 4.8 stars
  • Cost: free for the standard version or $99 for annual membership
  • Who it’s best for: anyone who wants to improve stress levels with small, buildable changes

Ten Percent Happier offers meditation lessons and new content on a weekly basis. Meditations, stories, and inspiration cover a range of topics, from parenting to anxiety to sleep.

User reviews suggest that Ten Percent Happier is a great way of reducing stress, working on anxiety, and learning how to meditate in an easy way.

One reviewer wrote, “I appreciate that you get to know the names, voices, and styles of the teachers,” and another said their “days have never started so well and relaxed.”

A free version of the app offers some content. Otherwise, membership costs $99 per year.

Pros

  • includes topic-specific meditations
  • meditations are general and don’t have any specific religious or spiritual ties

Cons

  • no soundscapes or white noise options
  • sleep meditations are limited

Best for mindfulness

Insight Timer

  • iPhone rating: 4.9 stars
  • Android rating: 4.8 stars
  • Cost: free for standard version or $9.99 per month or $59.99 annually
  • Who it’s best for: anyone who wants to learn via workshops and courses

Insight Timer is a meditation app with a difference. Featuring workshops, guided meditations, music, courses, and celebrity speakers, Insight Timer can help keep your brain busy while helping you reduce stress and get better sleep.

User reviews suggest the app has “great teachers,” including celebrities like Goldie Hawn, Russell Brand, Elizabeth Gilbert, and Gisele Bündchen, as well as a plethora of helpful content.

Regular events mean that users can pack their schedule with workshops, talks, and classes, even during the pandemic.

The app costs $59.99 for the year or $9.99 monthly. You can also the free standard version, which still has a lot of helpful features.

Pros

  • free version includes thousands of meditations
  • you can connect with other users directly in the app

Cons

  • you have to pay for premium features and meditation courses
  • many of the meditations are geared toward advanced users

Best for inspiration

TED

  • iPhone rating: 4.6 stars
  • Android rating: 4.5 stars
  • Cost: free
  • Who it’s best for: anyone who wants inspirational talks on various topics

TED boasts more than 3,000 free talks in more than 20 languages on its app, meaning that users can explore myriad topics from all over the world.

The “Inspire Me” feature suggests new content, making it possible to learn from world-class thinkers even while in quarantine.

One user called it “a brilliant way to educate yourself if you lose your focus a lot when reading,” while another suggested it was “a must-have for long journeys and opens up a lot of different perspectives.”

The TED app is free.

Pros

  • you can download talks directly to your phone
  • you can listen to audio or watch video

Cons

  • you can’t save topic preferences in the app
  • no option to search by specific speakers

Best for productivity

Forest

  • iPhone rating: 4.8 stars
  • Android rating: 4.7 stars
  • Cost: $3.99
  • Who it’s best for: anyone who wants to improve time management and implement other positive habits

Forest is a productivity app or a phone game with a purpose: Users create their own virtual forests, literally watching their healthy habits grow.

User reviews suggest that people who enjoy decorating games will enjoy using Forest to set themselves new targets and routines, which could be particularly helpful during the pandemic when people’s normal daily lives face disruption.

One review called Forest “such a beautiful reminder that everything big happens with many tiny steps.”

The app costs $3.99, and optional in-app purchases are available.

Pros

  • easy-to-use interface with uncomplicated games
  • includes a focus timer and a break timer

Cons

  • updates with new content are lacking
  • app can be glitchy

Best for connection

Words with Friends

  • iPhone rating: 4.6 stars
  • Android rating: 4.2 stars
  • Cost: free but offers in-app purchases
  • Who it’s best for: anyone who likes puzzles and word games

Words with Friends can help you build your vocabulary while playing and connecting with friends and strangers. Much like Scrabble, Words with Friends challenges players to create words from a selection of random letters.

Reviewers note that using Words with Friends has helped make their brains feel sharper and even expand their vocabulary, but some reviewers warn that the chat feature is sometimes misused.

One reviewer said they’d “made new friends, and have gotten closer to old friends through the games. It’s broadened my word knowledge, and has provided me with hours of cerebral challenge and delight on a daily basis.”

The basic game is free but offers in-app purchases and add-ons.

Pros

  • can help improve your vocabulary
  • free version is fully functional

Cons

  • games can take a long time since you have to wait for someone else to make a move
  • ads in the free version can be overwhelming

Best for puzzle lovers

Chess — Play and Learn

  • iPhone rating: 4.8 stars
  • Android rating: 4.7 stars
  • Cost: free
  • Who it’s best for: anyone who loves chess or wants to learn how to play

Chess – Play and Learn is the app for anyone who’s binged “The Queen’s Gambit” and wants to learn the game for themselves.

User reviews say that Chess – Play and Learn is a great version because it provides players with so many options and themes. Learning a new game will most definitely keep your brain busy, and means you’ll learn with a new skill.

The app also offers brain puzzles and the chance to make new friends. One review called it “user friendly at all levels.”

The app is free but offers a range of membership levels with extra content if you’re a fan.

Pros

  • has several additional features, like puzzles and brain games
  • suitable for beginners

Cons

  • doesn’t provide a lot of explanation behind each chess move
  • app can be glitchy and cause you to lose progress

AppsCostWhat it’s best for
Lumosityfree for basic subscription or $11.99 per month for standard subscription improving memory and focus
Duolingofreelearning a new language or brushing up on current skills
Calm$14.99 per month or $69.99 annually managing stress and anxiety and implementing mindfulness into your day-to-day
PsychologyCompass$20 per month or $200 annually sharpening memory, attention span, and other cognitive skills
Headspace$12.99 per month or $69.99 annually starting or maintaining a meditation practice
Ten Percent Happierfree for the standard version or $99 for annual membership improving stress levels with small, buildable changes
Insight Timerfree for standard version or $9.99 per month or $59.99 annually learning via workshops and courses
TEDfreeinspirational talks on various topics
Forest$3.99 improving time management and other positive habits and productivity skills
Words with Friendsfree but offers in-app purchasesconnecting with others via puzzles and word games
Chess — Play and Learnfreeplaying chess or learning how to play in a user-friendly way

What is cognitive training?

Cognitive training involves engaging in regular mental activities, like puzzles or memorization, designed to help maintain or increase a person’s brain function.

Does cognitive training work?

Studies show that mental exercise can actually improve neuroplasticity, the brain’s ability to form and reorganize connections between cells in response to new tasks.

Who can benefit from brain training?

Anyone who is looking to reduce stress, improve cognitive function, or experience a mood boost may find cognitive training helpful. Ongoing studies are specifically looking at how it can benefit people diagnosed with ADHD, those with cognitive impairments, and patients recovering from cancer or even COVID-19.

If you’re feeling burned out or disconnected from your community, finding an app to keep your brain busy may make a difference in your daily life.

Whether you’re a fan of games or hope to learn a new skill such as meditation or another language, now is the perfect time to invest in your brain health.