Jan 29

Questions from a middle schooler about videogames

I was asked to answer some questions from a middle school student doing a research project on video games.  Since I am interested in the topic generally, I should probably figure out how to answer these kinds of questions at an age-appropriate level.  My attempt:

Jose asks:

1. Do video games affect the human brain? Do video games affect the way of thinking? Do video games damage the thinking part of the brain?

Yes, video games can affect your brain, like anything else that you do a lot of.  However, these changes can sometimes be for the better.  There is recent evidence of improvements in “visuospatial attention” (how you see the world) following video game play.  There may also be changes for the worse, like increasing aggression, but these are not yet well understood.
2. Can video games improve people’s knowledge?  Can they help people’s grades get better in school? Or can the[y] get bad grades?

Video games probably won’t help you in school very much.  They can cause problems in schoolwork when kids play too many games and don’t keep up with homework and assignments.  If you are getting your homework done, playing games won’t hurt and may actually help a little bit.
3. Can video games make people lose time? With friends and family? Time outside?

If you spend too much time on games and do not make time for friends, family, proper exercise and sleep, then that will very likely cause problems.
4. Can video games make people sick? Gain weight? Headaches or a tumor?

Some people report dizziness and nausea (upset stomach) from games that give you first person perspective.  This is very likely related to the kind of motion sickness you can get when riding in a car.  In rare cases, some people may react badly to flashing lights/sounds in video games.  In general, games won’t make you sick.  If you eat in an unhealthy way when playing videogames, that can lead to weight gain and other health problems.


5. Can video games make people addicted to what their mainly about? How do they do this? Why do people get addicted?

Gaming addiction is not well understood.  Games aren’t addictive the way other things are (like cigarettes).  However, there are certainly some people who have problems like in (2) and (3) above.  They seem to play so much that it messes up a lot of other things in their life.  That looks a lot like being addicted.  It also can look like a lot of other problems that teenagers often run into — mood swings, depression, difficulty in relating to others.  I do not think it is well known whether games can cause those problems or whether kids having those kinds of problems for another reason sometimes like to play a lot of videogames.


Thank you very much for your help.

You are welcome, Jose.

Aug 14

Forgetting names

For some reason, I’ve been getting a lot of requests lately to explain why we are bad at remembering people’s names lately.  An email exchange on this with an Atlantic reporter got summarized online here:


Curiously, it then also got picked up on another site, Lifehacker:


And then I was contacted earlier this week and did a short conversation on the phone with a radio show, Newstalk, in Ireland with host Sean Moncrieff.

All the conversations went well, although I’m not sure I had much to say beyond the basics that names are hard and arbitrary, unlike other facts you tend to learn about people you meet.

A more interesting idea is that I suspect there is a “reverse Dunning-Kruger” effect for name memory.  Dunning-Kruger effects are cases where everybody thinks they are above average.  For names, my sense is that most people think they are below average.  I would guess they aren’t, but just that most of us are bad at names.  In theory, it wouldn’t be very hard to test this, but I don’t think anybody has even run a real experiment.

Jul 29

Cognition at high speed

I’m a big fan of Jerry, who posts to YouTube as ChessNetwork his videos of playing chess online.  One of the things he does regularly is playing online speed chess — ultra-rapid, “bullet” chess where each player has ~1m for the whole game.

Chess is a different game when you have 60 seconds to make every move in a whole game.  I find it compelling because it exposes the absence of calculation in very high level chess play.  At 1-2 seconds/move, it is almost purely pattern matching, habit and processes we would have to call intuition.  There is no time for anything but the most rudimentary of calculation.  And yet the level of play is pretty sharp.

Jerry is particularly entertaining because he keeps up a verbal stream of consciousness patter while playing.  He notes positional principles that guide some move selection and his voice gives away his excitement audibly when he senses a tactical play coming.

Understanding how this type of cognitive process is accomplished would tell us a lot about human cognitive function.  What he is doing here is not really hard for any chess player with decent playing experience (I am decent at bullet chess — nothing like Jerry, but I can play).  And relevant to the old post about AI & Hofstadter, the fact that computers are unequivocally dominant at chess has nothing to do with understanding how humans play bullet chess.


I’ve spoken with chess professionals about speed chess in the past and the general sense is that playing speed will not make you better at chess.  But studying and playing chess slow will make you better at speed chess.  Perhaps a principle of training intuition in complex tasks can be derived from that.

May 14

Neuroscience Meets Cryptography

Our article on our “cortical cyptography” project is out in the Communications of the ACM:

The focus is on how implicit knowledge of a password provides resistance to coercion attacks were you might be asked/forced to give up your password. While true, we frequently see people raising concerns that our method is too slow/cumbersome in its current implementation for regular use — also true! Probably the useful practical application would be things like replacing the current system of personal questions secure websites ask you for when you need to reset your password. If we were really to build an app for that, I think we’d still need to improve the learning rate (shorten time) and the knowledge detection methods.

Fortunately, doing those things requires learning more about how the brain system that does this kind of learning works — which is what we do here every day.

We may have discovered a way to use this method to do secure transmission of arbitrary messages as well. However, to get a reasonably secure amount of entropy, it might be far too cumbersome for actual practical use. I like the idea conceptually, though, so maybe we’ll run a low-entropy proof of concept anyway just because I think it’s cool.

Mar 17

Post-doctoral position available

Enhancing Intuitive Decision Making through Implicit Learning

We are looking for a post-doctoral researcher to contribute to a new ONR funded project that will use computational modeling and fMRI to examine intuitive decision making.  Using our PINNACLE framework, we will build computational simulation models of cognitive processing that depends on interactions between implicit and explicit knowledge.  These will be used in conjunction with fMRI data collection to test and expand the cognitive models.  The overarching goal is to use the cognitive neuroscience of memory systems to identify conditions in which both types of memory can be optimally applied in support of decision processes.

Requirements: expertise in either cognitive modeling or fMRI design and analysis.  Experience in both a plus.

Funding is available through at least June 2017.

Posted March 17, 2014.  Applications will be reviewed until the position is filled.

Contact: preber@northwestern.edu

Nov 26

The Man Who Would Teach Machines to Think

Good article on Cognitive Science versus Artificial Intelligence in the Atlantic from a few weeks ago.


Douglas Hofstadter, the Pulitzer Prize–winning author of Gödel, Escher, Bach, thinks we’ve lost sight of what artificial intelligence really means. His stubborn quest to replicate the human mind.

This is the key point, in my opinion:

“I don’t want to be involved in passing off some fancy program’s behavior for intelligence when I know that it has nothing to do with intelligence. And I don’t know why more people aren’t that way.”

I’ve had the chance recently to tell the story of how I came to Cognitive Neuroscience from originally studying Computer Science and this captures the main idea quite well.

Especially the last part of the quote — I really don’t understand why more people don’t think this way.  I’ve thought that ever since Deep Blue beat the best chess players in the world, why isn’t anybody organizing competitions for actually smart chess playing programs that aren’t allowed to brute force search billions of positions?  I guess there just aren’t enough of us who think that is an interesting problem.  Or maybe among those of us who do, there aren’t any who have the time to work on that problem since there are so many other interesting problems in trying to study human intelligence.

Sep 16

Neuroscience and video game skill learning

I wrote a short piece for a gaming-oriented online magazine, GLHF (Good Luck, Have Fun!) talking about the neuroscience of skill learning and how it applies to getting better at even things like video games.  The magazine is generally focused on Starcraft2 and the professional e-sports scene around Starcraft (although I think they want to get into Dota2 as well).

I clipped images of the piece below, but you can access it directly either via the main magazine url: http://glhfmag.com/

Or you can go directly to the relevant issue via: http://issuu.com/glhfmag/docs/glhf_magazine_6_issuu_single_page?e=5965119/4641972





Sep 16

Brain training by Starcraft

Can’t believe I didn’t Randomness this one already…

Real-Time Strategy Game Training: Emergence of a Cognitive Flexibility Trait

  • Brian D. Glass, W. Todd Maddox, & Bradley C. Love


The main finding: increased cognitive flexibility after 40 hours of playing Starcraft.  Of note, the assessment of cognitive flexibility was done by meta-analytic Bayes factor across a wide array of assessments.  That’s very creative and maybe the right way to be approaching measurement of subtle transfer effects.  If the transfer effect is in a process that is partly represented across a variety of measures, you’d need someway of combining the measures and also partially out the target process.  Also of note, the participants were all female because they wanted non-gamers (defined as <2 hours/week) and there weren’t any male non-gamers at UT Austin.

Aug 01

Implicit Learning Review

The review paper for Neuropsychologia is officially available.

Memory systems research has typically described the different types of long-term memory in the brain as either declarative versus non-declarative or implicit versus explicit. These descriptions reflect the difference between declarative, conscious, and explicit memory that is dependent on the medial temporal lobe (MTL) memory system, and all other expressions of learning and memory. The other type of memory is generally defined by an absence: either the lack of dependence on the MTL memory system (nondeclarative) or the lack of conscious awareness of the information acquired (implicit).  However, definition by absence is inherently underspecified and leaves open questions of how this type of memory operates, its neural basis, and how it differs from explicit, declarative memory.  Drawing on a variety of studies of implicit learning that have attempted to identify the neural correlates of implicit learning using functional neuroimaging and neuropsychology, a theory of implicit memory is presented that describes it as a form of general plasticity within processing networks that adaptively improve function via experience. Under this model, implicit memory will not appear as a single, coherent, alternative memory system but will instead be manifested as a principle of improvement from experience based on widespread mechanisms of cortical plasticity. The implications of this characterization for understanding the role of implicit learning in complex cognitive processes and the effects of interactions between types of memory will be discussed for examples within and outside the psychology laboratory.


Jul 15

Brain Training by BrainAge

Brain Training in PLoS One: http://www.plosone.org/article/info%3Adoi%2F10.1371%2Fjournal.pone.0055518

Brain Training Game Boosts Executive Functions, Working Memory and Processing Speed in the Young Adults: A Randomized Controlled Trial

Rui Nouchi, Yasuyuki Taki, Hikaru Takeuchi, Hiroshi Hashizume,Takayuki Nozawa, Toshimune Kambara, Atsushi Sekiguchi, Carlos Makoto Miyauchi, Yuka Kotozaki, Haruka Nouchi, Ryuta Kawashima

The title seems to accurately tell the results of the experiment. Training was Nintendo BrainAge versus Tetris in a randomized controlled trial design.  WM & PS went up in participants who did BrainAge >> Tetris (Simple Reaction Time went up in Tetris).  Participants were young, mean age 20, n=16 per group.  Training was 15m/day 5 days/week for 4 weeks.  Somewhat surprisingly strong results for relatively low total hours of training in younger adults.  Recruiting, compliance, retention look very strong though.  I guess you could worry about expectancy effects but everything else looks very solid.  A big, elaborate assessment battery was used.  I haven’t looked at every piece of it, but Ravens (RAPM) curiously went up a lot in both groups.



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