Neuro Gaming and Our Distracted Minds


Neurogaming is a new form of gaming that involves the use of brain–computer interfaces (such as EEG) so that users can interact with the game without use of a traditional controller.

You probably have seen stories in the past decade about people controlling computers with their brain. This was particularly true in working with people who have handicaps or disabilities from injuries and were unable to use a keyboard, mouse or traditional input device. Neurogaming can have applications in treating brain disorders like PTSD and ADHD.

But the field has moved beyond health industry neurogaming technologies and now sectors like defense, sports and education are working with these technologies.

An early neurogame is the racing game NeuroRacer. Though it looks very much like a traditional single-player game, it was designed to improve the cognitive functioning of aging adults. It looks like a simple driving game that we saw in the earliest days of home and arcade videogaming, but because it is controlled by your thought processes, it is at an entirely different level of gaming.

Neurogames allow users to pick up and move objects by mentally blocking distractions. This requires brain-computer interface algorithms, GPU computing and special hardware like virtual reality headsets, motion capture and mobile EEG to create personalized closed loop systems. 

Adam Gazzaley, who created Neuroracer, and his Neuroscape lab at UCSF are focusing on improving brain function and bridging neuroscience and consumer-friendly technologies.This means games to support treatment of brain disorders such as ADHD, Autism, Depression, Multiple Sclerosis, Parkinson’s and Alzheimer’s Disease. 

All this may be beyond our technical skills, and the medical uses may be beyond our own needs, but Gazzaley also has simpler results from their research that apply to all of us. He co-wrote a book, The Distracted Mind: Ancient Brains in a High-Tech World, that explains that our brains are limited in their ability to pay attention, and attention is required for neurogaming. We don't really multitask but rather switch rapidly between tasks.

Distractions and interruptions - "interference" - divert us from completing goals.

Do you admit to not being able to finish reading an article or writing one because your phone rings or a text arrives or a social media notification pops up?

From their research, the authors offer strategies to fight distraction. Neuro games are part of that along with meditation, physical exercise and planning accessibility. They realize we are unlikely to give up our devices, but that we need to use them in more balanced way.

The video below is a talk Gazzaley gave in which he describes an approach developed in his lab that uses custom-designed video games to achieve cognitive enhancement. It is more of his own story through this research than a jargon-laden lecture. He shares his basic science research that inspired these translational efforts, to the founding of Akili Interactive Labs, to their latest quest for the first FDA-approved action video game.