Neuronarrative

Musings on the complicated business of thinking

How Video Games Can Help Us Achieve Mindfulness

New video games are being designed to improve focus and boost pro-social goals.

I’ve become a focus junkie. If I see something written in a legit publication about techniques or technologies to improve mental focus, I freebase it—mainly because the forces draining focus are unrelenting, and I’m convinced that the only way to regain balance is by indulging measures that are just as intense. (My working philosophy: extreme forces call for extreme adaptation, using the best tools and strategies science can afford us.)

Enter author and psychologist Daniel Goleman, popularizer of “Emotional Intelligence”, and author of a new book about the power of focus called, simply, “Focus”.  Goleman is one of my favorite writers in the psychology space because his work is a true example of what I call “science-help”—he’s all about the research. When you glean takeaway knowledge from a Goleman book, you can be sure it’s been tested and credible enough to earn his writer’s brand.

Because I’m also a midnight snacker of business nibblets, I came across Goleman’s latest article in the Harvard Business Review, “The Focused Leader: How effective executives direct their own—and their organization's—attention". The entire piece is well worth the magazine's $17 cover price (or at least buying a PDF reprint online), but I was especially intrigued by a sidebar in the article about a new species of video games designed to help regain our focus in a focus-fragmenting world.

It's difficult to think of a more hard-to-believe ironic twist than video games—engaging and entertaining video games, no less(!)—being used to sharpen attention. As Goleman discusses in HBR, neuroscientists at the University of Wisconsin-Madison have grabbed hold of this task like tics on a deerhound and produced a video game slated for a 2014 release called, fittingly, “Tenacity.”  Quoting Goleman:

“The game offers a leisurely journey through any of half a dozen scenes, from a barren desert to a fantasy staircase spiraling heavenward. At the beginner’s level you tap an iPad screen with one finger every time you exhale; the challenge is to tap two fingers with every fifth breath. As you move to higher levels, you’re presented with more distractions—a helicopter flies into view, a plane does a flip, a flock of birds suddenly scud by.”

The objective is the same as that of meditation—to draw attention back to a central point despite the number or intensity of distractions dive-bombing one’s focus. Goleman adds, “When players are attuned to the rhythm of their breathing, they experience the strengthening of selective attention as a feeling of calm focus, as in meditation.”

University of Wisconsin-Madison researchers see this as just the beginning of a focus-enhancing revolution in digital tech. Through an initiative called Games+Learning+Society (GLS), they are pioneering efforts that marry entertainment with enrichment, and building it all on a platform of solid science.

The team boasts members with serious science street cred, like neuroscientist Richard J. Davidson, founder of the Center for Investigating Healthy Minds, whose work on neuroplasticity (the brain’s ability to change at the neuronal level) could carry Promethean fire to the video game world. Davidson is leading research to identify what’s happening in the brains of people who use games like Tenacity, with the hypothesis that the technology will help train our brains for enhanced focus, and—believe it or not—greater kindness.

“Modern neuroscientific research on neuroplasticity leads us to the inevitable conclusion that well-being, kindness and focused attention are best regarded as skills that can be enhanced through training,” says Davidson. “This study is uniquely positioned to determine if game playing can impact these brain circuits and lead to increases in mindfulness and kindness.”

Given the deluge of news about video games leading to violence, the idea that they could make us a bit nicer sounds, well, mighty nice. And the truth is that it's not even far-fetched: it's an outcome sitting at the crossroads of ancient wisdom traditions and focus-enhancing technology—as we learn to more consistently focus our attention, we experience a change in both awareness and attitude. As everyone from the Buddha to David Foster Wallace has observed, once our awareness is enhanced and broadened, we can get out of our heads and interact more conscientiously with others.

That's the pro-social goal that has the Wisconsin team fired up about the focus-enhancing power of digital tech. According to Constance Steinkuehler, co-director of GLS and associate professor of education at UW-Madison: “We’re looking at pro-social skills, particularly being able to recognize human emotions and then respond to them in some productive fashion, which turns out to be harder than you might think.”

Armed with Davidson’s brain-imaging analysis, the team wants to know if playing the games they’ve designed will foster pro-social adaptation in our noggins.

“We look at pre- and post-test measures and see if there is a difference,” said Steinkuehler. “For example, in Tenacity, our mindfulness app, you might ask yourself ‘Is there a dosage effect? Can we see that more game play has more positive effect on kid’s attention?’”

If that's proven out, then GLS's technology-harnessing work could be the perfect counterbalance to the dubious video-game legacy the news media is so fond of blowhorning: that gaming does little more than foster anti-social behavior, everything from bullying to serial violence.

At a less radical level, the UW-Madison team’s work may also provide an antidote to the insular effects of digital tech. If doses of Tenacity, or similar games, leads to heightened focus and social awareness, then spending time buried in your smartphone or tablet could have an upside beyond accruing more gold and elixir for your barbarian clan.

“There’s this tremendous amount of time and energy investment in games and media,” says Steinkuehler. “So part of what we’ve been trying to figure out is how do we take some of that time and make it beneficial for the people engaged in it? We have examples from television or film or documentaries, of art pieces, of indie films, of shows like Sesame Street, that actually have documented benefits for their viewers. So games are another media, why not use them?”

It’s this pragmatic view of technology, as opposed to the absolutist view that too often creeps into our mindspace, that will eventually win the day. As Sesame Street proved decades ago amidst the clamor of “TV is an anti-educational evil!” fear mongering, we can make use of technology to enrich minds. The difficulty in doing so arises from fighting against path-of-least-resistance thinking—human nature's chronic disease of default—that turns us into willing slaves of our time-chewing vices.

The work of the GLS team and others crafting new uses for digital tech reminds us that how technology ultimately affects us is an outcome we can, and should, influence. If we punt on that responsibility, we shouldn't be surprised at the bad news that invariably follows. But if we see the responsibility as an opportunity, we'll be surprised at how much good can come from the ones and zeroes in our hands.

You can find David DiSalvo on Twitter @neuronarrative and at his website, The Daily Brain. His latest book is Brain Changer: How Harnessing Your Brain’s Power To Adapt Can Change Your Life.

David DiSalvo is a science and technology writer working at the intersection of cognition and culture.

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