Turning inner space into outer space

December 13, 2014

You need an open mind if you want an app to train it

A screenshot from Elevate

Computers don’t make us smarter, but they can make it seem that way.

Say, for example, you’re having an argument over whether Hades is the name of a place in Greek mythology or of the god who ruled it. Google can bring you the answer in seconds.

To be truly smarter, you would be able to think of the answer without relying on a search engine. That doesn’t mean your head has to be filled with trivia about myths and legends, but you should be capable of using clear thinking and logic to come up with an answer that at least has a high probability of being right.

This is where apps like Elevate come in. Advertised as a “brain trainer,” this app for iOS and Android was recently named one of the best of 2014 on Apple’s App Store. I agreed with many of the other choices for best of the year, so I thought I’d give Elevate a try for a week.

Did it make me smarter? Let’s see.

Elevate works by giving you daily exercises designed to improve skills such as precision and eloquence when speaking, brevity and spelling in writing, comprehension and agility when reading, focus and recall when listening, and conversion and estimation in math. Those are among the skills you can learn for free — but only a three a day.

If you want more skills, or if you want to practise more than three a day, you have to subscribe to a “pro” version for $4.99 a month. The cynic in me says the free stuff is just enough to make you feel you’re making progress, but not quite enough.

Anyway, my own experience was a bit uneven. Take math conversion, for example. In this game, you have to place various measurements — mixed between metric and imperial units — in order from least to most. I was terrible at this one, mainly because I couldn’t get past how pointless it is. We’re on the metric system — get over it!

In cases like this, though, you have to remind yourself that the training goes beyond immediate practicality and into general fitness. There are times in our lives when we are required to do things that seem to have little sense or purpose, but we do them anyway. Filling out a form for a government agency comes to mind.

I found myself rebelling in other exercises as well. Speed reading just seemed annoying — the app zips through a couple of sentences then tests you on your comprehension. In real life, you could just go back and re-read them for the answers.

And in some cases, I found I could just bumble my way through by making guesses. With a one-in-three chance of being correct, the odds are not that bad.

Still, I have to admit that I could use some practice with my listening skills. And once I get over some of my initial resistance, the app could be quite useful.

One area where I did well was with removing unnecessary words from sentences. You can see an example above. The obvious answer is to remove “a person who is.” But why not take out “extraordinarily” while you’re at? And really, you could hone it down to “Emily is intense.”

I have to wonder whether “training” is the right way to improve your mind. There are some things in life that you do well because you have to. If you don’t get them right, life will keep teaching you lessons until you do.

An app like Elevate adds a layer of artificiality. Do we really need to learn all these things? Of course, this could just be the rationalization of a lazy mind looking for ways to get out of work.

So I’m going to stick with Elevate for a while longer. I figure a few months will give a better idea of whether it really does work. The big test, though, will be whether I’m convinced to fork over five hard-earned dollars every month.