Wednesday, January 6, 2010

Better mental health through video gaming

McGill research team sees possibility of training brain to react differently


JANUARY 6, 2010

**Reblogged from The Ottawa Citizen,**

Video games already provide entertainment and diversion, but they may soon boost self-esteem and improve mental health.

Based on knowledge that many of our reactions to life's stresses happen in a split-second and often without our awareness, Mark Baldwin's team at McGill University in Montreal started wondering whether they could program people's brains to react differently.

"All we did was say, 'OK, can we train it?' And once you ask the question, you kind of think, 'Why not?' " the psychology professor says. "You can train anything else. You can train a golf swing, you can train arithmetic skills through practice and drills, so why shouldn't you be able to train some of these automatic thoughts about social experiences, about self and others, about relationships?"

They thought of how people who play a lot of Tetris start to think and even dream about bricks falling from the sky, he says, and video games seemed an ideal medium to retrain people's "mental habits" because they're engaging and motivational.

One could argue that meditation is based on this same notion of retraining thought processes, he says, but efforts backed by psychological science have only appeared in the last five years and the challenge is identifying which thought processes to practise.

He doesn't think it's possible to use a video game to convince people of something high-level like the belief they're a good person, he says, but you can practise basic reactions like paying attention to positive feedback and ignoring criticism.

They've already developed some simple games available at, Baldwin says, including one in which players find the smiling face amid a sea of frowning faces and another where a smiling face appears each time a player clicks on a word related to them, such as their name or year of birth.

"It's just like Pavlov's dog. This boosts self-esteem, makes people feel a little less aggressive in response to insults," Baldwin says. "It's a long way from being a therapy of any kind; these things are games and little laboratory tasks. But someday I think there's going to be some use for this as a part of some kind of psychological intervention."

In the future, the notion of "games" providing entertainment and "applications" doing something useful will converge, he says, pointing out that Nintendo's Brain Age and Wii Fit have already kicked off that trend.

"In terms of where the future goes, that's what makes me hopeful that the application idea is growing and the line between them will get blurred and you'll see more of these positive efforts being integrated with entertainment-type games," Baldwin says.

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About this series: The World Future Society, a Washington, D.C., think-tank founded in 1967, tracks future trends in technology, politics and society. This week, Canwest News Service highlights five of the organization's most fascinating forecasts for 2010 and beyond.

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