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Can an app make you smarter? We tested ‘Fit Brains Trainer’ to find out

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If you’re not actively assigned to do activities that are supposed to be designed to broaden your knowledge, do you stop learning? Do you get dumber? I find myself wondering this about myself regularly. As someone who thought most of the homework assignments I got were kind of dumb anyway, have I really missed out on anything or lost a step now that I am no longer going to classrooms every day? My sentence structure hasn’t devolved into cro magnon-style dialect, but sometimes I have to look up words I thought I knew I’ve definitely noticed some lag in my ability to do math equations. Then again, it could just be my brain saying “defer to the computer that you carry around with you, it’s literally built for doing things like this.” If I’m using my phone and tablet to look things up, couldn’t I just use it to get smarter?

Ever since Nintendo released its brain training games years back, tons apps have come out claiming to improve your brain function. They all generally claim to have some sort of proven scientific backing, and I don’t question it. There’s plenty of science that I don’t understand but trust is true. For example, did you know that fire can be extinguished with sound waves? I have no idea how it works, and neither do scientists, really, so technically I think that makes me as smart as a scientist. Still, I’d like to be smarter – or at least feel smarter. So I went into the App Store and grabbed the app that seemed best equipped to increase my brain to Brainiac proportions. Fit Brains Trainer seemed to be the best bet. It came with thousands of positive reviews, the top spot in the education charts for 80 countries, and endorsements from the New York Times, CBS, Women’s Health, and Discover Magazine. $10 bought a year’s worth a brain exercises

One of the things I liked best about Fit Brains Trainer had nothing to do with the activities in the app. The promises in the app description are so shamelessly brazen that you’d think it was less of an education app and more of a miracle drug. “Our users have reported the following benefits:
 Improved memory and recall, deeper concentration, clearer and quicker thinking, stronger problem solving skills, positive mood changes,” it claims. You’ll be smarter, happier, grow several inches, get a raise, suddenly have six-pack abs, and always smell like a warm spring breeze! What could possibly go wrong here? This is already the best $10 I’ve ever spent and I haven’t even started my training.

iqtest-121Before diving into Fit Brains Trainer, I thought it was only right to test my intelligence objectively elsewhere. (The app has a tracker built into it that will show you have much you’ve improved, but it’s difficult to survey it in any way outside of the app insisting it’s making you smarter.) To attempt to be scientific, I took an IQ test online, which I can guarantee is entirely accurate (I really can’t). After answering some questions about numbers and how to make different shapes out of hexagons and spelling things backwards, I received my score: 121. How accurate that is, I don’t know. But when the website asked for an email address, I gave it a fake one and when it tried to get me to purchase a “Complete Personal Intelligence Profile,” I clicked “no,” so I can’t be that dumb.

Fits Brain Trainer never told me I was an idiot. But it let me know that I needed some work. After my first go at a few training games – matching pairs of shapes, identifying an object by its shadow, and determining which grouping of coins was more valuable – the app delivered my scores to me. Points are split among five categories: concentration, problem solving, memory, visual, and speed. You add up your score from all five and you get your total. Through my first play through of every category, I was sitting at a total of 330 points. I was particularly good at visual cues and impressively bad at everything else. Memory was my weakest, followed by problem solving.

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I would have guessed concentration to be my weak point. I mean, I started writing this article, then got up for a bit to check where the cat was. If a bird flew by, I’d never finish.

Conspiracy Theory: I think all the scores start a little low intentionally to keep you playing. The app will tell you how your rank amongst your peers and what your overall brain performance is according to its own algorithms, but it seems to be based off time played. If it was trying to give you an accurate score, an initial test would seem to make the most sense. But what do I know? I just scored a 121 on my IQ test.

If you look at Fit Brains Trainer as a game – and to some degree that’s what it is – then it’s really a grind. You do the same activities over and over, usually producing similar results, and incrementally adding points to your score. Those points add up might-eee slowly. Even an exceptionally great performance – setting personal high scores in every training category – only gained me a whopping 29 total points to my brain index score. The scale goes to 1,000, and swinging scores in the 20 range was far less common than a 5 to 10 point gain. Needless to say, maxing out your score may be less of a work of intelligence and more one of endurance.

FitShapesThere are a total of 10 games in Fit Brains Trainer: Matching Pairs, Coin Calc, Missing Pieces, Shadow Shapes, Quick Blocks, Spot the Difference, Paint Drops, Stacked Discs, Speed Sort, and Perfect Patterns. Every game has three difficulty levels: Beginner, Intermediate, and Advanced. You unlock an increased challenge by performing particularly well in a the game. None of them get to the point of overwhelming difficulty.

These aren’t like carnival style games that are made for you to keep spending money until you eventually receive a prize that isn’t worth 1/10th of what you spent; These games are designed for you to win. After my week of brain training, I reached the advanced level in two categories, both visual related. I never passed beginner in any of the concentration games and fell short of reaching intermediate in a speed and memory game as well. 

If anything, I felt like I got worse at a few of the games. Like those homework assignments that I didn’t think were helping me, though, it was the games that I didn’t care for that caused me the most struggle. You’re not playing anything for long in Fit Brain Trainer – just 60 seconds at a time – but there’s a threshold for how interesting counting drops of paint can be – yet more proof that my concentration score was artificially inflated.

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Other games I definitely noticed an improvement in, but I started to wonder if I was cheating at them to some degree. There’s a memory game that flashes several objects, then shows you more objects than the initial flash and asks you to pick out which ones weren’t there before. The first few times I played this game, I tried to remember what objects I saw first. Then I noticed that the original objects don’t move so I just had to remember where they are not what they are. Either this means I outsmarted the game and therefor should be receiving bonus points or I was totally over-thinking things initially. It felt like I found a loophole in the game’s logic.

According to Fit Brains Trainer, though, I showed improvement every time I played. So much so, in fact, that the app finally gave me an actual ranking: Average. I didn’t notice this until looking back at the screenshots, but if your score is below a certain level the game just tells you to “Train All Areas.” This is the game’s way of calling you stupid.

By the end of my week of training, I increased my Fit Brains Index to 447, a 113 point increase. Visual tests continued to be my strong suite, memory got a significant bump and increased by over double my original score, my problem solving and speed increased considerably, and concentration almost stayed exactly the same. (It takes a special kind of concentration to remain so steadfast, I’d argue.) Except for the stagnant concentration score, I improved my totals in every category. According to Fits Brain Trainer, I was finally sufficiently average.

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Even though my score went up according to the app’s internal scoring, it’s hard to say if I accomplished anything. For the most part, the games felt like menial tasks. I got better at the challenges, sure, but rarely am I asked to identify numerical patterns. The only other place that I had been asked to do that recently was my IQ test. And now that my training was complete, I could return to the test and see if I improved. If I were to receive any of what I was initially promised, I’d either score a little bit better or I’d do the same or worse but feel better about it because of Fit Brains Trainer’s ability to provide positive mood changes. It’s a win win.

iqtest-129Returning to the site where I took the initial IQ Test, I went to re-take the exam and was denied because I already took it. This website would have scored highly in the memory category of Fit Brains Trainer. No matter, after (cleverly) opening a Chrome Incognito tab, I was able to take the test again. The only problem was that the questions were exactly the same. Because I never paid to see the full results, I didn’t know what the right answers were for sure, but I had already done the match on the difficult questions and remembered what some of the answers were (a surefire sign my memory had improved, no doubt). I went through with the test anyway, just to see what would happen. I finished with a score of 129 on my second go round.

So did Fit Brains Trainer actually make me any smarter? It’s hard to say, exactly. By the measurements provided in-app and by the third party test that I took, yes, I am somewhat smarter than I was a week ago. Even if the games aren’t all that fun, it’s hard to deny that challenging your brain to think in ways that it doesn’t normally probably has some sort of positive effect. It definitely didn’t make me feel any dumber (commenters on this article are sure to take care of that for me), but it doesn’t deserve points for that.

If the results are quantifiable in any real way, it’s this: After a week of playing with Fit Brains Trainer in hopes of getting smarter, I will likely continue to do a daily training session. It’s not particularly time consuming and it isn’t hurting anything. As someone who is usually pessimistic, this is a pretty positive outlook from me. Maybe this thing works after all.

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