Mobile Games Help Scientists Study Cognition


Impulsiveness and risk-taking behavior can be reliably measured with specifically designed mobile games, according to new research published in the journal PLOS ONE.

Researchers examined puzzles in The Great Brain Experiment app [iOS, Android] and found that each is a “serious scientific experiment” that reliably measures several areas of cognition including visual perception and memory.

The anonymous app lets participants send data back to researchers simply by playing the game; results from thousands of participants will help scientists examine individual and group differences in cognitive functioning. The app also sends messages to users asking if they would like to make an appointment to have a brain scan.

The researchers concluded that results from the games are as valid as those gleaned in a laboratory and offer larger sample sizes (so far 95,000 people have downloaded the app and 65,000 of those have volunteered their data for analysis).

Controlling for distraction, the scientists compared the scores of 16,000 participants who played four distinct mobile games to similar experiments in a lab setting and found statistically relevant results for all four games. They said such games could be reliably included in scientific experiments.

Games that test impulsivity and action inhibition, for example, will help scientists understand more about disorders like ADHD and mental illnesses like schizophrenia. The games also enable researchers to understand how certain cognitive functions like risk-taking change over time, and how they affect other areas of cognition.

“That ability to hold yourself back from an action — trying to not do something — is a really important human ability and something we want to understand better,” one researcher involved in the experiments told the BBC.

The games used in the current research include “Am I a Risk Taker?” and “Am I Impulsive?” The latter asks users to smash fruit falling from a tree, but refrain from smashing rotting fruit as indicated by its turning brown.

Four more games are already being considered for additional experiments. “Can I predict the future?” examines how people assess the availability of environmental rewards.

The Journal of Experimental Psychology has already published research on working memory based on the mobile games. The study’s authors discovered differences in how the brain deals with distraction, which helps researchers better understand memory impairment and resolve inconsistencies in previous research.

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