Daphne Bavelier gives a nice overview of the cognitive benefits of video games

If you’re familiar with the research on the cognitive benefits of video games, you can probably skip this one. If not, here’s a good way for you to spend the next 18 minutes, and maybe break a few preconceptions you might have about the usefulness of gaming. Daphne Bavelier talks about how playing action video games like Call of Duty and Black Ops can improve various cognitive capacities.

I was particularly surprised by these two interesting facts on gaming in general:

  • The average age of a gamer is 33 (makes sense — in the 80s, games were played almost exclusively by kids. How old are those kids now?)
  • One month after the release of COD: Black Ops, the game had been played for 600 million hours. That’s 68,000 years.

There are a few problems with this research though, which I discussed here.

Star Trek will become a reality by 2050, says man who channels spirits

In the video below, I present to you Darryl Anka, a self-help/sprituality guru who is pretty popular on YouTube and has a few products out. Many people actually believe that Anka is able to channel the spirit of a being called “Bashar” who lives in some other dimension, and that this Bashar will turn our world into Star Trek. Again, this is not a joke — people actually believe this stuff. Below is a video of Anka being interviewed about all this stuff in full character:

Bashar tells us, through Anka, that he lives in a star system called “Sha” which is invisible to our dimension unless we make a vibrational shift of the same kind that allows Bashar to speak through Anka. However, 300 years in the future, we apparently all make this shift, because Bashar explains that the Earth is then part of the same interstellar alliance to which his species belong. Hmm, you could even say, it’s sort of like a federation… yes a federation… of different planets… all of which are united…

Anyway, by that time we’ve created world peace, done away with national borders and we solved the energy crisis by tapping directly into the Earth’s electro-magnetheoric field (electro what? Skip to 4:50)

We’ll see lot of progress to this end by the years 2025-2033, and by 2050 we’ll, and I quote, “have made enough changes so as to truly be functioning as a full-fledged member of the interstellar alliance.” Nice!

Although it might seem like Bashar is coming back in order to help Darryl Anka become an incredibly successful self-help guru, he’s actually doing so to help us make the transition into this interstellar alliance (guess they don’t have a prime directive where they come from). Presumably he tried to channel into the president of the USA or a media mogul first, and it didn’t work, so he found the second best way to spread the word — an entrepreneur.

Although it might seem like this is all just the elaborate scam of a techno-utopian fantasist , I think it’s most likely that this is all just the elaborate scam of a techno-utopian fantasist. In addition to his channeling job, Anka is a visual effects artist and has worked on Star Trek: The Motion Picture, Star Trek: The Wrath of Khan, Star Trek: Nemesis, I Robot, The Time Machine, Red Planet, and the Project U.F.O. TV series. Also some non-sci-fi stuff too. Here’s his impressive IMDB page.

Safe to say, I think this guy, and the other Law of Attraction channelers are scammers. More on this guy and this industry later.

Why monogamy is ridiculous

Dan Savage, aka the American Savage thinks monogamy is ridiculous. I agree to the extent that he’s talking about the life-long, one-person, you’re-the-one fantasy that those ultimate purveyors of the unattainable, Disney, are so fond of propagating.

“‘Till death do us part” is one of the most horrible ideas ever conceived. I put it up there with the “one true god” idea. If your religion precludes the acceptance of other religions, it’s not a huge step to go from “You are wrong” to “You’re a heretic,” because your standards have narrowed so greatly. Likewise, I wonder how many people have tossed aside a great relationship because it wasn’t like the one Alladin and the Princess had.

Anyway, here’s the America Savage to tell you more:

Here’s his book too if this has piqued your interest:

The problem with the gaming/cognitive functioning link

As someone who spent countless hours in his youth playing Doom, Street Fighter II and other effective ways of making time speed up, I really want the link between computer gaming and enhanced cognitive functioning, which I’ve mentioned before, to be true. It would validate every hadoken, justify every gib. But although the evidence is promising – encouraging even – it’s not quite there yet. Walter Boot, Daniel Blakely and Daniel Simons published a review in 2011 pointing out the distance we have yet to go before we can be sure about StarCraft’s place in our cognitive training routine.

Remember these guys?

Firstly, we have the problem of demand characteristics in some of the non-experimental studies — the ones that take a group of gamers and compare them to non-gamers on various cognitive abilities. Gamers need to come out on top here to even consider video games as cognitive enhancers, of course, but even if they do, it doesn’t mean that games are causing the difference. Perhaps the gamers had these cognitive advantages to begin with, and that’s why they take so well to the games. Or perhaps they were more motivated to perform well during the testing.

Many such studies specifically advertise for experienced gamers. Other research has shown that if you think you’re likely to perform well on a certain task, you’re sometimes more likely to do so. This problem is particularly relevant when you consider that many gamers will be aware of the news reports linking gaming to cognitive enhancement, and may have some idea that this is what the researcher is testing.

The way around this is normally to do an experiment — take a group of people, preferable non-gamers, and give them a battery of cognitive test. Then randomly split them into two groups, tell one group to play video games for a few weeks and the other group not to, then give the same tests again. You’ll then see if the video gamers have improved relative to the non-gaming group.

But the same problems exist as with the non-experimental studies. The gamers know they have been gaming and might deduce that they are supposed to perform better on the cogntive tests in a follow up. This is why placebo control groups are used — both groups would play video games, but the placebo group would play one that is not expected to bring any cognitive benefits, usually a slower paced game like Tetris. However, if the tests used more closely resemble the action video game than Tetris, you can make the case that the expectancy effect is still in play. The design of the experiment is not sufficient to pry the two possibilities apart conclusively (for example, by asking participants whether they expected to improve, although even this has it’s own problems), even though it might make more sense intuitively that the video games are working.

Further muddying the waters, some studies have failed to find a difference between gaming and non-gaming groups in both experimental and non-experimental tests.

Where to go from here

This might be disappointing, but there is some evidence of cognitive benefits caused by video games. We just don’t know why, or what conditions or individual differences are most amenable to such effects. Boot, Blakely and Simons propose that future studies should meet the following criteria (no study yet published has managed to meet them all):

  • Covert recruitment (participants aren’t told the nature of the study)
  •  The paper should detail the recruitment method
  •  Experimental studies should be conducted
  •  Participants should be screened for familiarity with the idea that gaming brings cognitive benefits, and whether they expected the gaming they did in the study to enhance their test results
  •  The placebo control games should offer equal expectancy effects on the performance of the cognitive tests
  •  Neuroimaging should be used to help pry apart expectancy effects versus actual cognitive changes

If gaming has any chance of non-domain specific cogntive enhancement, the results could be used to help fight age-related cognitive decline, help people in their personal development (working memory may be more closely linked to academic success than IQ), and give teenagers the world over valid excuses not to get off the PlayStation. So it’s worth spending the time andmoney getting to the bottom of this.

Now if you’ll excuse me I have to go play Call of Duty. For science.


How to improve social anxiety by training your attention

In 2009 Brad Schmidt and colleagues published a clever treatment for social anxiety disorder. Before I describe it, a short “spoiler” alert…

If, as i suspect, you are reading this looking for a self-help treatment for social anxiety, I recommend that you do not read this article, as knowing the nature of the experiment might negate its effects (or it may not; I don’t know, but it surely can’t help you so let’s stay on the safe side).

Instead, try to get hold of the computer program used in the study. The best lead I have is Richard McNally’s lab who tested an iPhone, iPad and android app of the program. There might be an ongoing study you can take part in, or you could try requesting a copy of the app for your own use.

End of spoiler alert

Hypersensitivity to threats is a feature of social anxiety disorder. Where one person sees a disgusted facial expression and ignores it to continue chit-chatting, the person with SAD will focus on this facial expression and take it as evidence that they are being poorly judged.

They are negative evaluation detectives, scanning and interpreting social situations in a way that paints them negatively. For whatever reason, an adaptive behaviour — making sure we’re not pissing off our allies — has become maladaptive, leading to anxiety.

Threat? Photo: massdistraction

A potential treatment, then, would be to re-train the attention not to focus on negative facial expressions so much. This is what the program aims to do. Here’s how it works.

Participants are presented with two pictures of people, one displaying a threatening facial expression, the other a neutral one. The pictures stay for a while and then disappear, and one picture leaves a letter in its place. Participants press a key to indicate which face left the letter behind. They are told to do this as fast as they can.

The trick is that 80% of the time the letter appears behind the non-threatening face so that over time, participants are being trained to move their attention away from threatening faces. With less attention paid to them, there’s less opportunity to infer negative judgements. The fact that participants have to press the keys quickly is important here, like a “gamification” effect to increase engagement and attention.

Participants completed eight 15-minute sessions on the program, two per week for 4 weeks. Could such a short, simple game really make real-world differences in social anxiety disorders? Well this is only one test and it needs to be repeated, but the results were impressive. After 4 weeks, 72% of participants no longer met the criteria to be diagnosed with social anxiety disorder, compared with 11% in the control group. The results remained in a follow-up four months later.

So, yes, so far it seems it can.