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Posts Tagged ‘Games’

The Power Of Imagination

The placebo effect is well recognized in medical research and is taken into account in legitimate studies.

For the uninitiated, here is a brief rundown of placebos and the placebo effect:

A placebo is a sham medical intervention. In one common placebo procedure, a patient is given an inert sugar pill, told that it may improve his/her condition, but not told that it is in fact inert. Such an intervention may cause the patient to believe the treatment will change his/her condition; and this belief does indeed sometimes have a therapeutic effect, causing the patient’s condition to improve. This phenomenon is known as the placebo effect.

When an inert substance makes a patient better, that effect is called the placebo effect. The phenomenon is related to the perception and expectation which the patient has; if the substance is viewed as helpful, it can heal, but if it is viewed as harmful, it can cause negative effects, which is known as the nocebo effect. Placebo effects are a scientific mystery.

A distinguishing characteristic of legitimate scientific research is having  control group to gauge how much of any positive effect shown is real and how much can be ascribed to the placebo effect.

The study was conducted by researchers at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill and Duke University Medical Center.

For this study, 34 children ages 6 to 15 years old who had been diagnosed with functional abdominal pain by a physician were recruited to participate by pediatric gastroenterologists at UNC Hospitals and Duke University Medical Center. All received standard medical care and 19 were randomized to receive eight weeks of guided imagery treatment. A total of 29 children finished the study; 15 in the guided imagery plus medical treatment group and 14 in the medical treatment alone group.

Randomization also lends credibility to any study’s results since it removes a potential source bias and accusations of stacking the deck to achieve preselected results.

When we then heard that children were able to reduce abdominal pain by up to half through the power of their imagination we were skeptical but not entirely disbelieving. Other studies have shown similar results:

Prior studies have found that behavioral therapy and guided imagery (a treatment method similar to self-hypnosis) are effective, when combined with regular medical care, to reduce pain and improve quality of life. But for many children behavioral therapy is not available because it is costly, takes a lot of time and requires a highly trained therapist.

This study was different because the guided imagery material was prepared for the children to use on their own, independently of therapists.

The guided imagery sessions, developed jointly by van Tilburg, co-investigator Olafur Palsson, Psy.D. and Marsha Turner, the study coordinator, were recorded on CDs and given to children in the study to use at home.

The treatment consisted of a series of four biweekly, 20-minute sessions and shorter 10-minute daily sessions. In session one, for example, the CD directs children to imagine floating on a cloud and relaxing progressively. The session then gives them therapeutic suggestions and imagery for reducing discomfort, such as letting a special shiny object melt into their hand and then placing their hand on their belly, spreading warmth and light from the hand inside the tummy to make a protective barrier inside that prevents anything from irritating the belly.

The results are incredible:

In the group that used guided imagery, the children reported that the CDs were easy and enjoyable to use. In that group, 73.3 percent reported that their abdominal pain was reduced by half or more by the end of the treatment course. Only 26.7 percent in the standard medical care only group achieved the same level of improvement. This increased to 58.3 percent when guided imagery treatment was offered later to the standard medical care only group. In both groups combined, these benefits persisted for six months in 62.5 percent of the children.

The study concluded that guided imagery treatment plus medical care was superior to standard medical care alone for the treatment of functional abdominal pain, and that treatment effects were sustained over a long period.

Video games can have powerful and positive effect in developing and strengthening a child’s mind. Of course, there are plenty of other things to do which can develop a child’s imagination in that mystical land referred to as “not in front of the TV”.

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Video Games: Good For The Heart & Body

Parents would greatly prefer if their children engaged in plenty of outdoor exercise. Unfortunately for some parents, their children actually lead almost completely sedentary lives. Those children are at a high risk for health complications, especially if a lack of exercise is combined with poor dietary choices.

Even if you are fortunate and have children who are physically active there are still reasons to moderate their activities during their time in front of the television. There are real skills which can be gained from interactive media, beneficial to boys and girls alike, which they simply will not gain from hours of passive television consumption.

An active video game system like the Nintendo Wii can be beneficial to kids who otherwise get no exercise at all, according to recent research published in Pediatrics.

Scientists at the University of Oklahoma Health Sciences Center found that playing active video games like the Wii can be an effective substitute for moderate exercise.   No one is saying children should stop playing outside or doing real exercise but active video games can be a suitable alternative at times.  Basically, if an obese child is going to sit around and play video games instead of exercising, something is better than nothing.

Here are the detailed finding of the research:

  • Children use similar amounts of energy playing Wii boxing, doing DDR at Level 2 and walking 2.6 mph. They burned about three times as many calories doing these activities as they did while watching television, about 3 calories a minute playing the games compared with 1 calorie a minute lounging in front of the TV.
  • Kids used about two to 2½ times more energy playing Wii bowling and doing the beginner level of DDR as they did watching TV. They burned 2 to 2½ calories a minute during the activity.
  • Boys used more energy than girls when playing DDR and bowling, but both boys and girls used about the same amount of energy walking and playing Wii boxing.

DDR2 is referring to the game Dance Dance Revolution 2. Boxing, tennis, and bowling are part of Wii Sports, the game that comes bundled with a new Wii. There are other fun fitness related games from Nintendo, such as Wii Sports Resort and the Wii Fit (which has games incorporating a unique balancing board).

Amazon.com has a special notice up:

Celebrate Sunday’s Wii Price Drop with Savings
If you are considering a Wii, you might like to know that the price of the Wii console will drop to just $199.99 starting at 12 AM PST, Sunday, September 27, 2009. Come back when it does and celebrate your purchase with surprise savings on some of our best games and accessories for Wii!

We recommend marking your calendar.

UPDATE: The notice is no longer up at Amazon, but the discounted price of $199.99 is still in effect.

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Video Games: Good For The Brain

Sinking blocks and clearing lines in Tetris may pay off with more than just a high score. Playing the classic shape-fitting computer game, which celebrates its 25th anniversary this year, for just three months may boost the size and efficiency of parts of the brain, a study published September 1 in BMC Research Notes finds.

Who knew playing Tetris for hours had a positive effect? (Hint: not your mom.)

When researchers wanted to test this theory out, they recruited young girls because boys tend to already have extensive video game playing experience, which may have affected the results.

Brain scans revealed that certain regions of gray matter — an information-processing mix of brain cells and capillaries — grew thicker in 15 adolescent girls who had played Tetris for three months. On average, these participants played for just 1.5 hours per week.

Although parts of the brain became bigger, other parts became less active.

Surprisingly, the brain regions that got bigger over the three months of Tetris play were not the same regions that showed a drop in activity, ruling out the simple explanation that as brain regions get bigger, they become more efficient.

The most important question from this study remains unanswered – is it good for you?

Haier and colleagues don’t know whether these Tetris-induced brain changes have any real benefits in tasks like memory, spatial reasoning and problem-solving ability. “We know Tetris changes the brain,” Haier says. “We don’t know if it’s good for you.”

On a related note, research has shown that women who play video games can improve their spatial skills.

“Our first experiment discovered a previously unknown sex difference in spatial attention,” said Jing Feng, a psychology doctoral student and lead author of the study. “On average, women are not quite as good at rapidly switching attention among different objects and this may be one reason why women do not do as well on spatial tasks. But more important than finding that difference, our second experiment showed that both men and women can improve their spatial skills by playing a video game and that the women catch up to the men,” Feng added. “Moreover, the improved performance of both sexes was maintained when we assessed them again after five months.”

It is important research with non-trivial applications in the field of education. One of the reasons why men rather than women are drawn to games which improve spatial skills is because those games tend to be violent 3D action shooter type games, like Halo 3, which are simply not as appealing to women. Unfortunately, playing The Sims or other games which require strategizing and deep thinking will do nothing for enhancing spatial intelligence in particular.

“One important application of this research could be in helping to attract more women to the mathematical sciences and engineering. Since spatial skills play an important role in these professions, bringing the spatial skills of young women up to the level of their male counterparts could help to change the gender balance in these fields that are so important to our economic health,” Spence added.

Spatial intelligence is not the only target for improvement. What if it were possible to boost fluid intelligence by training with a video game? Ed Yong points out that the latest research indicates it is possible, if done correctly.

There are products available on the market now such as Brain Age, Brain Age 2 and Big Brain Academy which will improve your abilities at certain specific tasks. However, improving at a specific task does not necessarily translate into an enhancement of overall fluid intelligence.

Nonetheless, Susanne Jaeggi from the University of Michigan has developed a training programme involving a challenging memory task, which does appears to improve overall fluid intelligence. The trainees do better in intelligence tests that have nothing to do with the training task itself and the more training they receive, the higher their scores.

Here’s how the actual training test worked:

Jaeggi recruited 70 young students and set half of them on a challenging training regime, involving the so-called “n-back task”. These trainees watched a series of screens where a white square appeared in various positions on a black background. Each screen appeared for half a second, with a 2.5 second gap before the next one flashed up. While this happened, the trainees also heard a series of letters that were read out at the same rate.

At first, their job was to say if either the screen or the letter matched those that popped up two cycles ago but the number of cycles increased or decreased depending on how good the students were at the task. Boffins had to compare the current pair with those many cycles ago, while dunces only had to remember fairly recent ones. The students sat through about half an hour of training a day for either 8, 12, 17 or 19 days, and were tested on their fluid intelligence before and after the regimen using the German Bochumer-Matrizen Test.

Those who participated for longer had better scores on a fluid intelligence test. The benefits extended to those who were initially low performers, not just the brilliant participants. Many training regimes have been designed to do precisely what was accomplished here, so what made this one successful where others have failed?

Jaeggi thinks that this task worked where others have failed because it remained challenging. The students were never allowed to get comfortable with the task – as soon as they improved, it became accordingly more difficult. Faced with the combination of two info streams and shifting difficulty levels, they couldn’t develop simple strategies or switch to autopilot. The task was also very challenging. To succeed in it, students had to remember old items, constantly update the memories they were keeping, block out irrelevant ones, and manage two tasks at the same time using both sound and sight.

Ed Yong ends with some related questions:

How exactly does the training programme lead to better fluid intelligence? At what point will the benefits of extra training start to level off? And how long will it take for the programme’s effects to wear off, it they ever do? The answers to these questions will help to decide if the findings are indeed “highly relevant to applications in education” as the authors claim.

And speaking of education, perhaps readers who are more familiar with the literature on intelligence can enlighten me on this: Jaeggi claims that fluid intelligence is fairly unchangeable in the face of education, which seems quite shocking. That would imply that our education system improves our knowledge and skills, but not our innate ability to solve problems or draw inferences. Is that really the case?

Try your hand at a free dual n-back style memory and intelligence training test here.

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Ubisoft is releasing a new fitness game for the Nintendo Wii, titled Your Shape.

From the press release:

“Partnering with Jenny McCarthy was a no-brainer for us,” said Tony Key, vice president of sales and marketing, North America. “Her commitment to fitness, and exceptionally wide fan-base, make her an ideal fit for the Your Shape brand. Best of all, she will make the workout fun for players, which is an element that has been missing in the fitness game market.”

It is understandable that a major company promoting a fitness game would turn to a recognizable figure to help garner sales. A cursory glance would indicate that Jenny McCarthy is a passionate advocate of health and fitness.

Louder Than Words: A Mother’s Journey in Healing Autism, was released in mid-September 2007 and her latest book, Healing and Preventing Autism: A Complete Guide, was released in March of 2009. McCarthy has recently become the spokesperson for Weight Watchers, encouraging healthy living and nutrition for new moms, and she currently has a development deal with Oprah Winfrey’s Harpo Productions. She will be seen next in the ABC Family original movie, “Santa Baby 2.”

However, a major corporation like Ubisoft should be held responsible for doing more than a cursory examination of their newest star. Had they bothered to look, it would be obvious that Jenny McCarthy is a wacko.

It sounds as though Ubisoft didn’t use any brains when it chose its new avatar. Here’s a hint, Ubisoft: If you want your Wii program to have any credibility as a “health” guide, partnering with an anti-vaccine wingnut whose knowledge of health science is so risibly inadequate as to be beyond contempt and who with her boyfriend Jim Carrey (who is also an anti-vaccine loon) has led anti-vaccine protests in Washington, is not a good idea.

The more insidious explanation is that Ubisoft is perfectly aware of Jenny McCarthy’s lunacy, but they don’t care because her status as a minor celebrity will increase sales amongst a demographic (young moms) who are ironically most affected by anti-vaccination stupidity.

Please take a moment to send a polite e-mail to Ubisoft explaining why lending corporate support to an individual like Jenny McCarthy, who peddles pseudoscience and causes a genuine public health risk, is a good way to lose your support.

Jocelyn Portacio
Senior Corporate Communications Specialist
Jocelyn.portacio@ubisoft.com

Lisa Revelli
Corporate Communication Manager
lisa.revelli@ubisoft.com

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Treating Lazy Eyes With A Joystick

Technology in medicine is making some embarrassing episodes of our youth into anachronisms. For example, 4% of children suffer from amblyopia (lazy eye) which normally can be corrected by wearing a patch for a total of 500 hours. Nobody wants to be the kid wearing the eye patch because no kid volunteers to get picked on.

Now Tel Aviv University’s eye and brain specialist Dr. Uri Polat of the Goldschleger Eye Research Institute has developed a computer therapy that could spare kids from the ugly eye patch, letting them enjoy themselves during therapy.

Not only can the problem be solved with a computer program specially designed for the task, it is done much more efficiently.

A leading expert in lazy eye syndrome recently assessed Dr. Polat’s invention and found that twenty hours in front of Dr. Polat’s computer treatment had the same effect as about 500 hours of wearing an eye patch.

Currently, they are taking the treatment regimen and turning into a fun interactive game so children don’t get bored going through it. This treatment plan already has the approval of the U.S. Food and Drug Administration.

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Cognitive declines are an unfortunate side effect of aging. For scientists to better understand how to prevent it from happening they look to those lucky few who age and remain mentally sharp. One particular group being studied are people over the age of 90 who live in a retirement community.

Laguna Woods Village, a sprawling retirement community of 20,000 south of Los Angeles, is at the center of the world’s largest decades-long study of health and mental acuity in the elderly. Begun by University of Southern California researchers in 1981 and called the 90+ Study, it has included more than 14,000 people aged 65 and older, and more than 1,000 aged 90 or older.

A favorite game requiring a sharp memory is contract bridge. Since forming new memories is one of the first things to be impaired with the onset of dementia, routine players can easily tell when another member begins to have problems.

“When a partner starts to slip, you can’t trust them,” said Julie Davis, 89, a regular player living in Laguna Woods. “That’s what it comes down to. It’s terrible to say it that way, and worse to watch it happen. But other players get very annoyed. You can’t help yourself.”

The real question researchers are trying to answer is whether people who stay involved in mentally engaging activities, such as playing bridge, doing crossword puzzles, or socializing keep themselves sharp as a result of their activities or if they participate in those things because they are already mentally fit. In some cases there appears to be a genetic component.

In studies of the very old, researchers in California, New York, Boston and elsewhere have found clues to that good fortune. For instance, Dr. Kawas’s group has found that some people who are lucid until the end of a very long life have brains that appear riddled with Alzheimer’s disease. In a study released last month, the researchers report that many of them carry a gene variant called APOE2, which may help them maintain mental sharpness.

Dr. Nir Barzilai of the Albert Einstein College of Medicine has found that lucid Ashkenazi Jewish centenarians are three times more likely to carry a gene called CETP, which appears to increase the size and amount of so-called good cholesterol particles, than peers who succumbed to dementia.

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Spore is a game created by Will Wright, a legend in the business. You may recognize some of his other creations, such as Sim City. The game plays homage to science but is not faithful to in an attempt to make the game fun to play.

In case you missed the hype, players start the game as microbes. They spawn pincers and flagella and swim to shore, “evolving” into a complex multi-celled organism that later becomes tribal, then builds cities and spaceships and finally colonises inhospitable planets and strives for galactic domination.

Actually evolving a creature may only take hours, yet the timeline will describe the process as having taken billions of years. On the other hand, the game’s evolution doesn’t rely on random natural selection and creatures evolve linearly, whereas in real life there are many branches on the tree of life.

Wright himself admits that making a great game – not absolute faithfulness to scientific knowledge – has to be the priority. But he told me later that: “We only break science with good reason.”

Overall, it is a fun engaging game which we recommend. It will force you to at least think about the processes involved in evolution. The only part of Spore which we found to be a negative is the space stage – it takes a long time, and certain tasks need to be done repetitively and manually which should be automated. At that point, gameplay becomes more of a chore. However, it’s easy to start a new round and find a different niche to explore and not be bored.

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