Fulfillment at Any Age

How to remain productive and healthy into your later years

Old Dogs (and People and Monkeys) Can Learn New Tricks

Are computer games a waste of time or do they help keep your mind active?

A few months ago, a student introduced me to an online game that immediately fascinated me-- Bejeweled Blitz, a one-minute game free to Facebook users. I'd always wondered what it was (being attracted to anything that sparkles), and as she demonstrated how the whole thing worked, I knew I was getting hooked. The premise is deceptively simple. Make rows of same color gems fall and explode by putting at least 3 together in a row from an array of 64. Afterwards, you can analyze your performance to see how you can improve, and if you do well, you get a badge you can show off to your Facebook friends.


Pretty soon I was taking more frequent one-minute breaks than I care to admit. But I like to think that it was the start of my response speed rehabilitation. After all, we know that performance time is one of the first behaviors to suffer from the aging process. If I could improve my ability to search and destroy those flickering jewels, who knows which other cognitive skills I could bring back to life?
Pathetically slow at first, I could barely break the minimum score and even my own records were not ones I wished to share with my online community. After a few weeks, though, I was racking up decent (though not all that impressive) totals. I could see that, as is true for research on aging and attention, I was having trouble seeing patterns especially when the jewels were similar colors. If I started thinking about how poorly I was doing, my performance became even worse. The most difficult aspect of the game is that when the sounds are on, you hear ominous thunderlike noises telling you that the minute is coming to a screeching halt. That's when the panic really sets in and if you don't fight it, you will go down not in a blaze of glory but in a path of slow deterioration. As the music crashes to a deafening crescendo, you become incapacitated completely, staring at the screen in dumb defeat. You promise yourself that you will get back to work but you know if you just give it "one more try" you can redeem yourself.

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Taking off my videogame addict hat and putting back in place my psychologist hat, I began to start thinking about how this situation relates to experimental studies testing fine motor performance and response time in middle-aged and older adults. Consistently, these sorts of tasks bring out the worst in the older learner. Distractions such as noises and interfering thoughts are the greatest threats to performance but so is lack of practice and knowledge of strategy. On the other hand, practice and continued improvement of strategy use can compensate for age-related changes in reaction time. For example, studies of experienced air traffic controllers show that in complex situations, they may perform a bit more slowly, but those speed losses are made up for by their ability to analyze correctly these situations and make the right decision.


It was clear that if I was going to improve my own reaction time, I would need some help. I decided to ask some of my youthful keyboard overachievers who consistently score in the 200-400,000 point range (within the top 1% of all scores) to share some of their secrets with me. My favorite piece of advice was to "keep the speed up." Unfortunately, this backfired. The faster I tried to point, click, and shoot, the slower I actually became. The more I thought about how slow I was, the slower I became. Second, he suggested working on "opposite sides of the board." Here again, things didn't go so well. It turns out that dividing your attention between multiple sources of information can kill your speed until you are well versed in the task (or mentally agile). His third piece of advice made the most sense to me: "turn the sound off." Those rumbling noises in the background counting down the final seconds are the kiss of death to your concentration.

My next youthful advisor claimed to have no strategy but instead vouched for the importance of practice. This is also a great suggestion and leads me to the theme of "old dogs and new tricks." Several years ago, a team of researchers at the University of Kentucky conducted a fascinating study in which older adults were compared with younger adults on a seemingly meaningless task in which they had to learn how to get a nut off a curved metal rod as quickly as possible. However, the task truly tapped into an important motor learning skill. Their performance was timed, and over several trials both the older and younger adults became faster. Of course, the young were faster than the old, but that was not the main point of the study's findings. The study's main point was the discovery that after a 2 year period, during which neither group (presumably) practiced the task on their own, the older adults had maintained their performance gains to a similar extent as the young.


These findings were impressive enough, and indeed a great cause for celebration among my fellow "gerontological optimists"-- those who believe that we can overcome the effects of aging on the mind and body through exercise, practice, and just plain determination. But it was the extension of these findings to old monkeys that really brought the point home to me. The monkeys actually improved over a 1-year period without rehearsal by a factor of 17%. Those little guys didn't have anything at stake other than perhaps the reward of a delectable pellet of monkey food. Clearly, there's something to this idea that we can improve and retain our ability to perform quickly.

Rhesus monkeys
The study has yet to be replicated on dogs, but if we extrapolate back to humans outside the lab the news is pretty encouraging. Even more to the point, video games may just contain the key to maintaining mental agility. Research reported just last week conducted by my colleagues in the field Art Kramer and Jason Allaire suggests that playing the Nintendo wii can boost everything from heart rates to bodily coordination. In only 24 hours (total) over an 8 week period of playing the strategy-oriented video game, The Rise of Nations, led to improved memory, reasoning, and cognition. Allaire's analysis of the advantage to these games cites three key factors: attentional demand, novelty, and social interaction.


The next time your boss, spouse/partner, or teenager catches you while you're playing an online computer game, iPhone app, or other so-called waste of time, you can now point to the benefits you are getting to your reaction time and decision making skills. As I've discussed frequently on this blog, fulfillment at any age means keeping a mentally fit body and mind.

I hope you enjoyed reading this entry, and now I have some important business to return to...

Follow me on Twitter @swhitbo for daily updates on psychology, health, and aging. Feel free to join my Facebook group, "Fulfillment at Any Age," to discuss today's blog, or to ask further questions about this posting. 

Copyright Susan Krauss Whitbourne, Ph.D. 2010

References:

Nunes, A., & Kramer, A. F. (2009). Experience-based mitigation of age-related performance declines: evidence from air traffic control. J Exp Psychol Appl, 15, 12-24.


Smith, C. D., Walton, A., Loveland, A. D., Umberger, G. H., Kryscio, R. J., & Gash, D. M. (2005). Memories that last in old age: motor skill learning and memory preservation. Neurobiol Aging, 26, 883-890.


Walton, A., Scheib, J. L., McLean, S., Zhang, Z., & Grondin, R. (2008). Motor memory preservation in aged monkeys mirrors that of aged humans on a similar task. Neurobiol Aging, 29, 1556-1562.

Susan Krauss Whitbourne, Ph.D., is a Professor of Psychology at the University of Massachusetts Amherst. Her latest book is The Search for Fulfillment.

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