New technology and gaming for online learning and brain health


Doris alerted me to a touching New York Times article from 10/19/14 entitled, To Siri, With Love. The author, Judith Newman, wrote a love letter to Siri, the iPhone assistant, because of the positive “relationship” Siri has with her autistic, 13 year old son. Siri, far more patient than the author, provides him with endless facts to the subjects that he is passionate about and relentlessly interested in. But even more importantly, she helps him be more socially appropriate by modeling responses that are polite, kind, and socially acceptable. Judith reports that she can now have more extended conversations with her son, and that he actually compliments her and says please and thank you, things he did not do pre-Siri. For this autistic child, being an independent learner with Siri’s help has done more on a social as well as cognitive level to stretch his thinking and person-to-person interactions. The article goes on to report that children with emotional and cognitive challenges work well with these digital “sidekicks”, and that the tech industry is creating digital characters for this very purpose. The good side of technology!

Assistive and adaptive technologies have made great strides. The list on Wikipedia of available types is encouraging, from digitally controlled prostheses to computer keyboards to computer operating systems sensitive to eye movements. It is important, including for the online learning field, that technology is widening the population of those able to access online and offline work, enjoyment, and life-enhancing opportunities.

Recently, brain research has entered into the industry’s focus on learning and brain acuity. Although not quite assistive or adaptive technology yet, new virtual games use brain research to engage multiple parts of the brain to increase function. Unlike games currently on the market, Project:Evo is designed to engage the brain this way, and is applying for FDA approval for the aging demographic.  Can Video Games Fend Off Mental Decline? in the New York Times on 10/23/14, describes Project:Evo – “its intended users include people over 60 — because the game might just help fend off the mental decline that accompanies aging.” Clive Thompson attempted Project:Evo which requires one to paddle on a virtual river while avoiding turns, clicking on specific colors of birds, fish and other objects, and increases in difficulty and speed as you improve. After 2 minutes he was making all kinds of mistakes.

The industry and the aging population has taken notice of brain games, and Thompson reports that it is now a 1.3 billion dollar industry. Do these games work? “Industry observers warn that snake-oil salesmen abound, and nearly all neuroscientists agree there’s very little evidence yet that these games counter the mental deficits that come with getting older.” Claims of brain growth became so outrageous that a group of neuroscientists issued a report harshly critical of the industry and to warn about unproven video game companies making unsubstantiated claims about brain acuity and charging high fees. Project:Evo appears to be different, and its 5 year study points to positive results. As Thompson says, “If it gets that government stamp, it might become a sort of cognitive Lipitor or Viagra, a game that your doctor can prescribe for your aging mind.

Image from book of hours, circa 1460: The Walters Art Museum,Baltimore, MD

Image from book of hours, circa 1460: The Walters Art Museum,Baltimore, MD

The good news of brain research is that your brain is not “fixed” but has neuroplasticity, or the ability to keep evolving. From wikipedia: “it (neuroplasticity) refers to changes in neural pathways and synapses due to changes in behavior, environment, neural processes, thinking, emotions, as well as changes resulting from bodily injury.” The bad news according to Thompson is that “Beginning in our late 40s and 50s, our working memory dims, and we lose the ability to juggle simultaneous tasks. It becomes harder to screen out distractions, to stay focused while reading or shopping. Processing speed — that is, the brain’s ability to react to stimuli — slows”. Project:Evo is designed to help slow this process. I am ready to sign on!

Although video gaming has become a big industry, there are other, more social ways to build brain health. Games have been a part of human history since we appeared on the earth. Any game played on a regular basis that requires thinking, strategy, and a winning plan is good for your brain.

Laura Carstensen, the director of the Stanford Center on Longevity, recommends that people adopt more healthful habits to increase brain acuity and longevity, including regular physical activity, efforts to master new skills — a new sport, another language, a musical instrument – and having an active social life. I talked about expanding my learning horizons in our January 6, 2014 blog: Is Learning the New Fountain of Youth? which highlighted the Harvard Business Review article on aging, productivity, and prosperity. Taking a course, MOOC, or joining a discussion group on a topic you want to learn about also helps keep your brain active.

Promoting Brain Health in your organization:

How can both for profit and not for profit organizations promote the brain health of staff, volunteers, and clients without entering a Project:Evo trial? As Laura Carstensen suggests:

  • Encourage physical activity through extended break times to exercise, use the gym, go for walks
  • Promote use of games as relaxation and brain-building activities
  • Sponsor adult sports teams, debate clubs, musical groups, and other social, group activities
  • Reimburse or contribute to organized learning expenses for courses, MOOCs, trainings, conferences
  • Explore adaptive technologies to enhance participation by everyone
  • Create an open atmosphere where learning is the norm, and online exploration to enhance work projects and tasks is supported
  • Like Gus, the 13 year old autistic boy, use digital devices and tools to help communication that deepens learning and shapes new, positive social behaviors

What activities do you do to enhance your brain health? What digital devices and technologies enhance your learning and brain function?


Featured image courtesy of University College – London:

0 replies

Leave a Reply

Want to join the discussion?
Feel free to contribute!

Leave a Reply