There is an area of the brain (the cingulate cortex for you neuro-geeks) that is partly concerned with how much attention is given to experiencing a particular pain. It has been found that the use of virtual reality is so stimulating, that it leaves less attention available to tune in to the pain… hence we don’t feel it as much. In this particular research, burn victims found relief by immersing themselves in cooling virtual environment.
You see, pain is all in the mind. Once the pain signal is sent to the brain, what we experience and how intensely we experience it is all a matter of how the brain interprets it. This is why when you touch something hot or very cold, for a split second you can’t tell the difference. This is also why we don’t notice a pain when we are very occupied. (ever notice a bruise later and not have any idea how you got it).
One of my favorite books on the subject of Male – Female brain differences is the book The Essential Difference: The Truth about the Male & Female Brain by Simon Baron-Cohen.
One of the more useful distinctions is the notion of the Empathizing brain and the Systematizing brain. In truth these are not gender specific, but rather archetypes which tend to be more represented in one or the other gender. As I think about gender and technology and read the research, it is clear that many women are active online and do, in fact, play computer games. However, of significance for the technology designers, is this distinction about persons with the systematizing or empathizing brain and its application or non-application to the world of digital engagement. Everyone I know agrees with the archetypes in Simon Baron-Cohen’s work, and we all laugh about how much of a systematizer the male is and how empathizing the woman is and how we drive each other crazy. But in the world of technology, the implications don’t seem to follow the same rules on the surface. True that most programmers are men (highlyl systematic work) and that many graphic designers (make it meaningful and pretty) are women, but if you look at the games women play (solitair, jewel, etc) they are one person games (i.e., not social) and involve a certain amount of systematic observation and decision making (i.e., does this jewel fit in this category(ies)? Whereas, World of Warcraft and other massive multiplayer games (mmg’s) are in many ways social as players get to know each other or each other’s avatars, and often grow to interact beyond the game itself. This leads to question about socialization with and without empathy, and because the socialization takes place in a structured competitive game forum, does that mean that boys are fundamentally more comfortable because they can socialize with systematic rules, taking the element of empathy out of the equation.
So… if there are “chick flicks”, are there “chick games”?
There is no doubt that most of us feel a bit overwhelmed by the information in our lives. Where did we put our car keys, what did I come into this room looking for? Am I growing senile already, is Alzheimers setting in. Have heart, you are probably normal. Biologically speaking, we are simply trying to cope with a rapid acceleration of information in our lives, with essentially the same brain that our Cro-Magnum ancestors had. Surveys of today’s modern office reveal that personnel were interrupted and distracted roughly every three minutes and people working on a computer had an average of eight windows open at a time. Edward Hallowel has termed this “Attention Deficit Trait” to distinguish it from the more biologically based ADHD. Consider that when we read a book or newspaper there are few integrated distractions to the activity of reading. Now consider what happens when you read the same newspaper online. Flashing or scrolling banners, multiple colored hyperlinks, flash animations parading across a part of the page, popup windows, and multiple small ads changing over time we look at them, or think about today’s TV, with additional information scrolling across the bottom, and text and graphic overlays poping up to advertize the next show. Couple this with the fact that we are probably surfing the Internet on our laptop as we “sort of” watch TV and we begin to see the emerging pattern of informational attention deficit.
The problem is that memory has everything to do with attention. We remember that which we attend to. In our case, it has long been known (since about the mid 1950’s) that our working memory can only hadle about seven of anything (numbers, words, pictures, steps etc.) Ever wonder why there are the seven wonders off the world, or the seven deadly sins, or even the seven days of the week? (this list goes on if you think about it)
When we are holding information in short term storage (working memory) prior to getting it into long term memory (like where you put your car keys down) and something garners our attention, the information that was in short term memory vanishes, just like your car keys.
So what does this have to do with technology. If you are a learning designer, keep the rule of seven in mind as you create instructional sequences, or instructions, and give your learners and users ways to process those seven pieces of information into long term memory before introducing new instruction or elements. This will build success and continued participation which is, after all one of the points of the technology you created.
Will ‘Rubi the Robot’ Be the Ultimate Teacher’s Aide?
In a first of its kind, Javier Movellan, Ph.D., at the University of California, San Diego’s Institute for Neural Computation has created a prototype of a robot that has succeeded in building a social bridge of acceptance with Pre-Schoolers. Young children have a severely limited threshold of engagement. Researchers found that if the robot responded to quickly, children ignored the response, and too late, they had already turned away. Additionally, if the robot repeated a toddlers sounds, then the child began to accept the robot as someone they can play with. The robot as also capable of provoking “shared attention” a critical developmental step for a young child to establish rapport, the foundation of communication.
For parents of young children, this confirms observations that young children often fail to engage with the technological marvels that we hope/expect young children to attend to. We buy fancy learning tools only to find a child immediately abandons the toy as soon as the parent ceases to play with it also. TV alone often does not hold their attention. This is why, of course, parents are the best playmates of all… social connection.
For game and electronic designers, this research has significant implications for incorporating the developmental elements that are necessary for the rapport that underlies a young child’s attention and engagement.
Memory Prowess Linked to Gaming
Brand new studies by British researchers show that engagement with technology has different effects on working memory, the type of memory that allows you to remember and use information. Spending time on Facebook appears to have about the same effect as working Sudoku puzzles, but spending time on Twitter and YouTube were likely to weaken memory.
It also appears that video games that involve strategy and planning also succeed in improving working memory. At the core of the results is the fact that activities that require you to keep track of information and actions and then planning your next actions train the working memory. To the contrary, instant information sources like twitter or YouTube are just about absorbing continous streams of short information negatively impacting memory. (see previous blog on the Ibrain)
Internet addiction center opens in US
A first of its kind in the US, a new residential treatment center for internet/gaming addicts has opened in Washington. What may be significant here is that the psychotherapists and the neurologists area arriving at some of the same conclusions… continuous engagement with information technology fundamentally alters the brain. Linda Stone (1998) coined the phrase “continuous partial attention” to describe the behavior of continually keeping tabs on everything, but never deeply focusing on anything. Gary Small (2008) notes that when “paying continuous partial attention, people place their brain in a heightened state of stress. They no longer have time to reflect, contemplate or make thoughtful decisions” leading to mistakes, feelings of irritability, and distractedness.
Other research has recently begun to suggest that the increased dopamine levels seen in information addicts (sustained continuous partial attention) mimics levels found in other addictions.
Several blogs and news sources are turning up a recent study done at the University of Georgia by Dr. N. Hertz, whereby patients with Parkinsons used Wii and showed significant improvement in motor coordination and affect.
For the eight-week pilot study, 20 Parkinson’s patients spent an hour playing the Wii three times a week for four weeks. By the end of the study, many patients could beat challengers on the games they practiced. It’s already known that exercise and video games independently can increase the production of dopamine, a neurotransmitter deficient in Parkinson’s patients. Dr. Hertz sumizes that this is also happening here. What really surprised the researchers was that patients showed little if any depression (a common side effect of Parkinsons).
With what we know about brain plasticity and the ability to rewire connections, it is probably no real surprise that training in a game that emphasizes gross and fine motor coordination created new cortical connections enabling patients to show behavioral improvement. What is new, is the increasing willingness of traditional medicine to look at vehicles that are by design highly motivational, rather than traditional therapies.
So, the next time you play a game, there is probably more going on than you think… your brain is constantly rewiring itself in accordance with what you do. (kind of a scary thought!)
A fascinating article and interview by Will Wright of Biologist E. O. Wilson, professor emeritus at Harvard University, is a two-time Pulitzer-winning ant expert who helped develop theories of island biogeography, chemical ecology, and sociobiology. For those of you who are not games, Wright is the creator of The Sims (the most successful computer game in history).
E.O. Wilson And Will Wright: Ant Lovers Unite! An Open Mic Discussion
While I am particularly fascinated by, and a bit myopic about the brain and technology (Hence the Keynote on that subject), I am caused to reflect on the much greater interaction between gaming and society by this interview. Perhaps it is the foundational science to Wright’s games that took them to a different level than seen before. This causes me to think that really effective games have got to resonate with some of the basic biological and sociological properties of our selves and our cultures.