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This article by Barbara Fox was prepared for the June 11, 2003

issue of U.S. 1 Newspaper. All rights reserved.

Video Games: Psychic Value?

Video game training can be used to improve a person’s

visual attention, according to just published research from the

University of Rochester, and a biofeedback expert in Princeton

counters that

he has been using similar game training for more than 20 years.

The conclusions of researchers C. Shawn Green & Daphne Bavelier were

published in a May 29 letter to the journal Nature: "Although

video game playing may seem to be rather mindless," they wrote,

"it is capable of radically altering visual attentional

processing."

Bavelier and Green found that habitues of video games could monitor

complex visual information more easily than non-game players, but

novices with just 10 hours of training could improve their visual

processing skills.

Among the intriguing possibilities of the Rochester study: Because

those with video game training score high on identifying objects in

their peripheral vision, the training might improve the skills of

elderly drivers. Because gamers can more rapidly process visual

information, video games might help those with neurological visual

impairments.

Games might even be a cost-effective way to train the brains of stroke

patients to be more attentive.

This idea of using video games to train brains is nothing new to Les

Fehmi, a psychologist and neurotherapist who pioneered a method of

biofeedback training that he calls Open Focus. An alumnus of San Jose

State with a PhD from UCLA, Fehmi established his Princeton

Biofeedback Center on Mount Lucas Road in 1973. He and his partner,

Susan Fehmi,

use biofeedback to control pain, treat everything from migraine

headaches,

hypertension, and other stress related disorders, and to deal with

attention deficit disorders. Like many biofeedback practitioners,

they measure the brainwaves that patients produce. The patients

"hear"

the patterns as a series of beeps and watch their brainwaves

"power"

a video game. How fast the PacMan can gobble dots and negotiate a

maze depends on the amplitude and intensity of the player’s brain

waves.

Players with ferocious intensity find they do poorly because they

are not producing the desired brain waves. Those who don’t pay

attention,

who are lackadaisical, also don’t do well in Fehmi’s games. Those

who do well show "relaxed alert attention" that

produces the brain waves associated with this kind of attention.

Quietly

— but not anxiously — they survey the overall situation and

then attend to necessary details. "With this feedback, the

operator

of the game learns to control nervous function and other functions

of the body in various situations," says Fehmi.

Fehmi and the University of Rochester researchers concur on the power

of video games as a training tool. "I absolutely agree with the

premise that when video games operate in response to brainwave

changes, it is possible to change brain waves for the better. Many

symptoms respond to this," says Fehmi. He has had particular

success in using this method to treat attention deficit disorders.

"Clients learn to look at the overall situation as well as the

minute details," says Fehmi. "They learn they have options

to try out various patterns and see which ones work the best, whereas

a child who didn’t have this kind of training might be stuck in an

attentional rut and wouldn’t necessarily seek to get out."

"I think we are entering into a new era where feedback and neuro

feedback can add a lot to the optimization of function across a range

of problems and situations, including in sports," says Fehmi.

"Some children say that when they learn to look at the overall

situation, as well as the details, their sports activities

improve."

Fehmi is only too well aware of the potential dangers of video games.

Children who are able to dissolve anxiety as it happens can play the

very exciting games yet remain both relaxed and interested. The same

game might cause stress-related symptoms in a more vulnerable child

who is not able to diffuse his excitement.

Most often it’s the feedback, not the game itself, that produces

good results. "When there is no feedback, video games could be

deleterious for kids who are already too hyper and too stressed. For

kids playing very active games and getting deeply involved in a narrow

focus, video games could do them long term harm because everything

else could seem boring," says Fehmi.

This warning holds true for most children, but not all. "Attention

Deficit Disorders cause some to day dream and wander off," says

Fehmi. "For these kids, video games — even without the

feedback

— might help to sharpen and sustain their focus."

— Barbara Fox


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