Brain

Did you know that playing video games is not only good for you, but that they can make you a better person? No, this is not a plug for Steven Johnson’s 2005 book “Everything Bad is Good For You,” although if you haven’t read it, you should. There’s ample evidence showing that playing video games can improve your decision-making, vision, hand-eye coordination, and reflexes, as well as provide a more effective and efficient way to learn, offer psychological benefits, and much, much more.

You can add a new study to this growing body of evidence, and it involves brain games from a company called Lumosity, based in San Francisco. (Disclosure: Menlo Ventures is an investor in Lumosity and a seed investor in PandoDaily.)  Supported by grants from the National Institutes of Health, the peer-reviewed study, published in the journal Clinical Breast Cancer, found that breast cancer patients who had undergone chemotherapy showed “significant” improvement in cognitive flexibility, verbal fluency, and processing speed after playing the company’s games four times a week for 12 weeks.

That may be welcome news, because there are few treatment options available to breast cancer survivors for cognitive difficulties associated with chemotherapy treatment. What’s more, Lumosity games don’t come in a pill form or as shots. They’re a non-invasive and non-pharmacologic method.

“Online, home-based, unsupervised cognitive training shows promise as an intervention for cognitive difficulties in breast cancer survivors,” Dr. Shelli Kesler, an assistant professor of psychiatry and behavioral sciences at Stanford and lead author of the study, told me in an email. “Even long-term survivors can benefit.”

While it would not be fair to say that with chemo the cure is worse than the disease, chemotherapy is hard on the bodies and minds of patients, with many suffering permanent damage such as memory loss, a lack of processing speed and attention. There’s even a term for it: “chemo brain,” which describes post-chemo side effects such as “fogginess,” anxiety, and depression that 75 percent of patients who have undergone chemo report. Given the number of people with cancer in this country – roughly 13 million in the US are living with the disease while roughly 650,000 undergo chemotherapy each year – it’s a widespread problem that doesn’t just affect cancer patients. A National Institutes of Health estimate from 2010 calculated the indirect cost of cancer on society, a result of “illness-related loss of productivity,” was $20.9 billion.

The theory is that chemo changes the brain, and that’s where games come in, because they also change the brain, but in a vastly different way. They alter the brain’s physical structure by tapping into human’s reward system, doling out shots of neurotransmitters like dopamine, which helps strengthen neural circuits. If it sounds similar to working out at the gym, well, it kinda is. Games aren’t the only things that do this, though. So do learning to read, navigating an unfamiliar city’s streets and avenues and playing a musical instrument.

Games of all kinds have all kinds of positive benefits. Studies show that players of action-packed games make decisions 25 percent faster than those who don’t, without sacrificing accuracy, and can pay attention to more than six things simultaneously while most of us can only track four. Games improve a player’s visual attention so he can better locate a target secreted among a bevy of distractions in a complex landscape – an important skill for radiologists who read MRIs and X-rays and soldiers that have a split second to separate enemies from innocent bystanders. Surgeons who play games regularly work faster and commit far fewer errors than those who do not. Since its 2006 release Nintendo’s Wii has become a staple in rehabilitation, so much so it’s spawned the word “wii-hab,” with a growing number of physical therapists helping patients rehab from serious injuries and illnesses. Games can enhance learning, they are a staple in training, and combat veterans who play violent games sleep better and suffer fewer nightmares, lessening symptoms from post-traumatic stress.

Lumosity’s games are not of the first-person shooter variety, naturally. They are basic mind exercises that test your ability to quickly identify two objects – say, a bird and a number – that simultaneously flash on different parts of the screen. Then a player has to remember where the bird was by clicking on its location and clicking on one of five numbers. Or a shape flashes on the screen followed by another shape, and you have to say whether it matches or not. A third game has a player predict what direction a ball will travel after bumpers are removed. You have to memorize where all the bumpers are, then visualize the path instantaneously. It’s not easy. (I’ve tried it.)

Joe Hardy, VP of Research & Development at Lumosity, calls it “a gym for the brain” that can enhance players’ cognitive capacities to improve every day life. The company designs games with “neuroplasticity in mind,” with the idea being to target a muscle like working memory, which is useful for when you want to remember someone’s name or items on a grocery list.

“You need to design a path that loads working memory, forces you to take in information, create a situation for the intake of that information, hold it in their mind, then manipulate it,” he says.

After that company researchers test exercises to improve working memory, then its designers come up with a game to express them.

Dr. Kesler, a neuropsychologist, chose Lumosity games for her study because, she said, she’s most familiar with them, having used them in other studies. One found that Lumosity games could enhance brain function and math skills. Another

She says the company did not contribute to the study and there was no conflict of interest.

Not everyone is sold on the idea that games like the ones that Lumosity designs can make you smarter. In a Q&A with SmartPlanet, David Z. Hambrick, associate professor of psychology at Michigan State University, said, “there is [no] convincing evidence to support the claim by Lumosity and other companies that these programs have far-reaching beneficial effects on cognitive functioning. However, there is actually some evidence that physical exercise, ironically, does improve brain function.”

Some Lumosity players I interviewed would disagree. Maria Ross suffered a brain aneurysm five years ago, which caused damage to her frontal lobe. Her cognitive impairments were most keenly seen in her executive skills: vocabulary recall was slow at first, she wasn’t as “quick” with conversations as she used to be, and her short term memory was faulty. She also discovered deficits related to organization, prioritization, spatial awareness on her left side peripheral vision (mostly due to her eye issues), and information processing. A speech therapist recommended Lumosity as a way to get her “cognitive edge back,” and Ross says she found it was a fun way to rehab her mind.

She first tried a games called “Word Bubbles Rising” to rebuild her vocabulary recall.

“Normally very articulate, I had a hard time finding the right word in the normal pace of a conversation,” says Ross, who wrote a book about her experiences, “Rebooting My Brain: How a Freak Aneurysm Reframed My Life.” “This game helped get my brain unstuck, and tap into those words that I wasn’t used to using every day.”

She also sharpened her memory with matching games, and worked on focus and spatial awareness through the company’s various offerings.

“Since many of the games are timed, this also greatly sped up my information processing – kind of revving the engine up again, so to speak,” she says. “Plus, the games gave me an emotional sense of accomplishment in a very non-threatening but fun environment. I swelled with pride and hope as my scores rose day after day.”

Ross still revisits the games to sharpen her skills every now and then, “just because they are so much fun and so visually appealing.”

Alex Davis, 36, plays in a competitive soccer league in Portland, Oregon, and says that it’s key to understand the geometry of the game, to instantly recognize where each player is and be able to react accordingly. Lumosity, he says, “adds polish or, maybe better, fitness, to my game. When I’m not being diligent to be playing daily and incorporating the visualizations, my reaction time and decision-making suffers noticeably.”

Meanwhile, B. Lou deBonis, a screenwriter and CEO of Geek Street Productions in New York, credits Lumosity games with improving her writing.  “I think [the games have] really amped up my ability to just buckle down and write,” she says. “As a producer I can see it has helped with self-discipline and organization, which is essential to success.”

I tried out some games myself, and while it’s too early to know if they’ll make me smarter, I admit my head tingled after about 30 minutes – as if I’d munched on a kale salad. There’s no study for that, though.

[Image Credit: perpetualplum on Flickr]