So, what do you need to do to get your brain in the sort of shape that would impress Stanford neuroscientists (or at least to help you remember the name of your kid's math teacher or where you put your iPhone)? The answer to that depends a bit on what exactly your personal abilities are.
When you head to the Lumosity Web site, it will prompt you to "build your own personalized brain training program," an option which takes you through five areas -- memory, attention, speed, flexibility and problem-solving -- and asks which aspects you want to improve [source: Lumosity]. For instance, under memory, you can click on "remembering names after the first introduction," "learning new subjects quickly and accurately," "recalling the location of objects," and "keeping track of several ideas at the same time."
Based on the answers you provide, Lumosity generates a training program that zeroes in on all of your self-identified weaknesses. Already, more than 20 million people have subscribed to get their brains in shape, convinced enough of Lumosity's worth that they're willing to fork over $15 per month or $80 per year. Compared to a lot of gyms, that's a good deal [source: Perng].
Once your personalized training program is established, Lumosity lays out some predictions in terms of what percentage brain improvement you can expect over time. For example, in this writer's case, the projected improvement in brain performance after 3 months of training was 80 percent. As you improve, the training becomes more difficult, but it requires only 15 minutes each day.
Among the games used to reach these seemingly ambitious goals is one called "Speed Match," which is designed to challenge the brain's ability to process information and thereby improve a wide variety of cognitive functions such as working memory and reaction time [source: Lumosity]. It's a simple computer game. At the start, a symbol appears on the screen, and once you get going, the task is to determine whether each subsequent symbol that's shown is the same as or different than the one that preceded it. For instance, if the first symbol were a triangle and the second a circle, it would be a pretty easy choice. But the options usually aren't that straightforward -- the differences between symbols may be more like subtly varying colors within circles, for example -- and you only have 45 seconds to choose as many correct answers as possible. The game is quickly addictive, not least of all because of the adrenaline rush that kicks in as you're playing and trying to beat the clock.
Another game called "Raindrops" works out the brain's aptitude for doing quick mental calculations and its ability to work with numbers. This one is also straightforward and uses a race against the clock in order to build suspense and sharpen attention. Small raindrops, each with a calculation -- such as seven plus two or nine times four -- descend from the top of the computer screen. Your job is to solve the calculations before they reach the "water" below. The raindrops get faster and more complicated as you answer more, and the game is over when three raindrops hit the water.
Ultimately, the types of games you'll end up playing depend on which skills you want to work on. One popular game that focuses on language skills is called "Word Bubbles," which appears on the computer screen as a line of bubbles submerged in water. The point of the game is to raise as many bubbles as possible out of the water in one minute. To do that, players are given a three-letter stem -- like "con" or "qui" -- and the goal is to make three words of the same length in order to lift the bubble out of the water. So, that means a combination of "conifer," "connect" and "confirm" would move a bubble out of the water. After succeeding with seven-letter words starting with con, a player could move onto conjuring up eight-letter or six-letter words.