Brain Exercise Apps: Do They Help Or Hinder Cognitive Development?

Brain Exercise apps illustration questioning the wisdom of installing brain games on your phoneHave you ever installed a brain exercise apps on your smartphone?

If so, don’t worry. You’re not alone.

Let’s face it:

The allure of increasing your brain’s cognitive performance has tempted over 70 million users to a famous app in the course of just one decade.

And to be honest:

The attraction is justified.


Because every functioning human uses their brain. Increasing its capability can only serve us better as we go about our daily lives.

Now, look:

There is no doubt that technology has made our lives more convenient. Mobile clearly makes technology more portable. And the nature of mobile technology has made many apps completely free.

However, “free” is not always a good thing.

Many brain exercise apps cause undesirable habits that can be toxic to our overall health.

This leads to the following question:

Are brain exercise applications really effective in improving the brain, or do they actually hinder its development?

Brain Exercise Apps – The Big Lie

According to research by Joseph Kable, Caryn Lerman, and John Glick at the University of Pennsylvania, there is no evidence that brain exercise apps improve cognitive performance, working memory, or decision-making.

Image to illustrate how brain game apps disrupt decision making

The study enlisted two groups for testing several brain functions. To begin, the scienctists recorded some baseline scores.

Next, one group played brain games, while the other played regular video games. After the initial experiment, the researches tested both groups again and both showed improvement in their brain function scores.

These results imply that the brain games did not do any better in terms of significant effect and both groups improved because they became more familiar with the test. This comfort, not improvements from brain training, caused the high scores.

In fact, the test participants developed a better understanding of the games they played. The exposure enhanced their playing strategies instead of the presumed increase in the brain function.

This University of Pennsylvania study was not a fluke.

You’ll find similar results in a study by Neil Charness, Wally Boot, and Dustin Souders of Florida State University. Their research showed that skills from these mobile apps were very specific and didn’t have a lot of carryovers to other tasks.

Are You Sabotaging Your Brain By Playing Brain Games?

At worst, brain games could simply waste our time. But could it be possible that these apps are also insidious and cause a hindrance in cognitive development?

Or is it possible that the complexity that mobile technologies introduced to our lifestyles explain the decline of our brain function?

Thinking about cognitive development may reveal answers. The growth of children and their capability to perceive, think, and maneuver through their surroundings involves intelligence, reasoning, memory, and language development.

Cognitive development is not only dependent on genetics but also on the environment in which the child grows. Moreover, cognitive development depends on the stimulus and interaction that he or she experiences.

No one can control genetics but you can try to provide stimulating learning materials and experiences to support the development.

But whether brain games fall into the category of stimulating learning materials is a question that needs more exploration. Like the real data you should know about Cogmed for brain exercise.

Parenting For Dummies, 1936 Edition

To determine the relationship of these apps to cognitive development, Jean Piaget’s Theory of Cognitive Development will be useful. What follows is a kind of walk-through, if you will, of how the human brain assimilate information throughout its developmental years.

Jean Piaget on Cognitive Development helps us understand brain exercise apps better Magnetic Memory Method

This process of assimilation is important because the brain uses it to navigate the world. According to this theory, the progress takes place gradually and in four successive stages.

First Stage – The Adjustment Period

The first stage is the sensorimotor stage. This first stage of cognitive development occurs during the child’s infancy.  Infancy may seem like a short time but from birth the infant experiences a variety of physical and psychological interactions that cause many changes in a short period.

For soon to be parents, some highlights to expect are:

  • Newborns may already be able to focus and track moving objects
  • 3 months, recognize faces and familiar sounds.
  • 6 months, recognize their own parents and imitate familiar sounds
  • 9 months, understand simple words
  • 1 year, speak a few of these simple words and even associate names
  • 1.5 years, vocabulary continues to grow

Your Baby Has Her Own Tablet?!

During this infancy, some parents will hand smartphones over to their children as a distraction. They think that because their kids can already manipulate the tablet and interact and tap images and symbols displayed on the screen, this activity is fine.

No one really knows. Smartphones and tablets have only been with us for a short while and the children that have been able to use smartphones and tablets early in their lives have yet to be studied. Smartphone addiction does seem to be a real thing though.

Young Children exposed to brain exercise apps good or bad illustration

Yet, this much is already clear:

Too much screen time and less social interaction inhibit emotional and social development. Aside from that, studies also show that high-energy visible (HEV) light or blue light emitted by the screen can damage the eyes.

Why not get prepared to teach your kids memory techniques now so that you’re ready when they need you?

Magnetic Memory Method Free Memory Improvement Course

Second Stage – Pre-School Years

The second stage is the pre-operational stage that encompasses toddlerhood to early childhood.

Again, here are some cognitive development highlights:

  • 2 years, vocabulary will have significantly increased again
  • 3 years, familiarity with everyday routines like changing clothes and playtime
  • 3 – 6 years old, capability to use imagery and memory skills

Spotting Early Signs of Disability

Of course, it is a different scenario when the child has autism or learning disabilities. Such conditions manifest as difficulties in oral and written language, coordination, and attention and can usually be spotted around the age of 3. Trouble understanding simple instructions or being confused with simple tasks are typical signs of cognitive problems.

A delay in cognitive development, as well as several other factors, can contribute to these difficulties. It is best to consult a doctor before engaging in any brain exercise routines.

Tablets versus Toys

Ages 3-6 is a phase where children start learning to read and developing routines like doing chores. This is also the period where their attention span increases to about 15 minutes. Obviously, memory development is huge during this time.

Image to illustrate that brain exercise apps are not the best source of brain exercise Magnetic Memory Method

Since this is a stage that focuses on imagery, apps can provide much more stimulus and interaction than analog pictures.

Years ago, when preschoolers learned about tigers, teachers showed children pictures in books. Current technology allows preschoolers today to see that same tiger in a video, in vivid colors, and with sounds.

Of course, this type of app does not really fit into a “brain exercise” category but belongs more to “multimedia education”.

That said, many apps blur the lines and there are no studies pertaining to long-term effects on cognitive development because the technology is only recent.

In other words, this is unchartered water for scientists. Yet, far too often, people make conclusions about the use of apps during these early stages of life.


Parents now depend on these apps instead of multiple analog toys littered around the house.

On the one hand, it makes sense:

You only need one tablet for the child to play a nearly unlimited number and type of puzzles. The devices also distract children and prevents quarrels with siblings, (unless they quarrel over the tablet or smartphone itself).

Digital Friend versus Human Interaction

Based on studies, this is also the stage where the child develops social interaction skills such as playing and cooperating with other children.

Replacing physical activities and social interactions with too much focus on the tablet or smartphone will hinder social development. The research of Patricia Greenfield and her team at UCLA has done much to clarify this problem.

Of course, there are many other factors to consider at this stage. But no matter how you approach things, it’s best to be involved with your children as they play with tablets or smartphones so that they understand the limits as you supervise and provide them interaction while still allowing them the benefits of digital stimulus.

Third Stage – The Concrete Operations Stage – The Calm before the Storm

The concrete operations stage will be at ages 6 – 12 where a lot of physical and personality changes occur. The use of apps at this stage would be similar to that of the previous stage.

Image to illustrate a young person during the storm of cognitive development Magnetic Memory Method

But here’s a key difference:

During this stage, children are more able to think critically.

In terms of cognitive development, here is what you can expect:

  • 6 years, capability use logic in thinking and solving problems
  • 9 years, attention span will increase from 15 minutes to 1 hour
  • 12 years, increased use of logic

Fourth Stage – Formal Operations – Nightmare Teen years are not as bad as you think

This is the age group most parents dread.

Nonetheless, it is an important stage in cognitive development because between ages 12-18 is the formal operations stage where children start to think hypothetically.

They also become better at abstract ideas that lead to reasoning, logic and the ability to understand religion, philosophy, and mathematics. They can think in different perspectives, allowing them to conceive of social issues in sophisticated ways.

Whereas children think in black and white, right or wrong, adolescents can think in relative terms. They start to question authority and absolute truths. Socialization will be a key issue here as the adolescent spends more time facing a screen than interacting with friends. But if your teen is buried in an app, they risk not developing these cognitive abilities.

When Does Cognitive Development Stop?

Of course, in real life, hitting age 18 does not turn you into stone. You continue to age physically and mentally. Cognitive development does not stop because a person does not stop perceiving, understanding, and reacting to the environment in which he or she moves. You continue to learn and the physical structures of your brain undergoes continual change.

Why Adults Never Stop Learning

From age 17 to 45, the average individual will learn “practical street smarts”. He or she can still use reason and logic, solve theoretical problems, and understand abstract concepts, but he or she now has the added benefit of life experience.

For example, you may have realized that you get better brain exercise from reading physical books instead of ebooks:

In some studies, older adults tend to perform better in tests of crystallized intelligence. This intelligence is the ability to use learned information collected throughout the lifetime. This makes sense because they naturally have collected more information than a younger person.

Meanwhile, a young adult will perform better on fluid intelligence. This type of intelligence is the ability to think in abstract and new situations.

Generally speaking, younger adults have higher IQ than their adult counterparts. However, this difference may be due to the difference in technology.

Whereas many adults today only had access to television and printed reading material during their developmental years, younger adults had access to the Internet.  Differences in information consumption may be the source of the difference in IQ.

We can only guess what the effects are of earlier access to electronics, virtual reality, social media, and other modern-day education to the next generation of adults.

At 45-65, the years of insight typically allows the person to make compromises and work through disputes and contradictions in their religion and beliefs.

Senior Years – Retired but Not Expired

At age 65 and higher, research does not support that aging makes you lose the capability to use cognitive reasoning. And if there is a reduction, it will not be sufficient to be problematic in your day-to-day life unless you suffer from a complication (e.g. Alzheimer’s disease).

Image to illustrate the cognitive development of your senior years with or without brain exercise apps Magnetic Memory Method

However, many people complain that they are starting to have memory loss problems. Often, these reflect only short-term memory complaints because these people can still recall information from a long time ago but forget recent information.

During these advanced ages, studies like those completed by Alden Gross and colleagues in 2012 show that memory training would be very useful in arresting the decline of brain function in general.

For example, working memory allows us to retrieve and process several chunks of information to perform a task. For that reason, it is important that this function is retained for as long as possible. And using certain brain exercises, working memory can be trained and kept in top shape well into old age.

Unlocking Hidden Brain Performance

Instead of increasing the amount of “playing time” in these apps, you improve other aspects of your life that affect not only brain function, but physical performance as well.

One factor that affects brain performance is fatigue in the form of physical exhaustion. Check out a study by Hoda Abd-Elfattah, Faten Abdelazeim, and Shorouk Elshennawy for more information about this issue.

Of course, fatigue only means that it is harder for our brains to function when we are tired.

But physical activity, in general, is healthy for the brain. In fact, a study by Laura Baker and colleagues at Wake Forest School of Medicine in North Carolina showed that aerobic exercises improve cognitive function.

Avoid Poisoning Your Brain!

You really do need to take care of your physical body. Magnetic resonance images of the brains of alcoholics show decreased volume while smoking causes cognitive decline. Lack of sleep can also cause reductions in brain performance.

Diet also plays a key role. Ketogenic diets are currently popular and a study by Robert Krikorian and colleagues published in 2010 shows that dietary ketosis can enhance mild cognitive impairment.

But I Want to Play Brain Games!

There’s no doubt that brain exercises develop specific skills that benefit people from different walks of life.

For instance, old-time monks use methods like meditation while modern police forces use specific memorization techniques to improve the process of intelligence gathering. Most of these brain training activities are simple and require no external instruments.

Image of brain cluttered with brain exercise apps

Unfortunately, brain exercise in the minds of most people involves a tablet or smartphone full of brain exercise apps.

But the research just doesn’t support the claims that these apps are helping anyone.

Consider using mind maps instead. Or read 9 Brain Exercises That Ensure Memory Improvement.

Don’t fret if research shows that these brain game apps don’t work. There is a lot of other research on this site loaded with activities that do work to improve memory and brain function.

But, if you still insist on playing brain game apps, then go ahead if you find it enjoyable. Not everything you do must have a quantitative result. But don’t forget to spend quality time in the real world as well with your real memory.

And protect your memory at all costs. You’re the only one who can.

About the author:

Kelsey Clea Matthews or KC considers herself is a single mother of the digital age. She believes that the prolonged usage of gadgets is unhealthy for a child’s development, which is why she only allows her daughter to use the devices during weekends. While her kid is at school, she works manages the website Cost Figures.

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