Tag Archives: neuroscience

SuperBetter: how to live gamefully. Plus more stories of mind over body.

Andrew Marr with Jane McGonigal, Jo Marchant, AC Grayling and Simon McBurney.

Source: BBC Radio 4 – Start the Week, 08/02/2016

There was a time in the 1990s when I played Tetris®” target=”_blank”>Tetris every night before going to sleep. The falling blocks calmed my mind and soothed me into slumber. As anyone who has played it knows, after a session of Tetris it takes a while to stop seeing it continuing behind your eyelids, but even that experience is quite pleasurable. The game is discussed in quite a number of research projects, such as its role in the treatment of victims of post-traumatic stress disorder.

Jane McGonigal mentioned this phenomenon today on BBC Radio 4’s Andrew Marr show. It’s a wide-ranging conversation about the influence of the mind over the body, well worth a listen.

On Start the Week Andrew Marr talks to Jane McGonigal, a designer of alternate reality games, about her latest innovation which consists of SuperBetter: How a gameful life can make you stronger, happier, braver and more resilient” target=”_blank”>SuperBetter: A Revolutionary Approach to Getting Stronger, Happier, Braver and More Resilient and its accompanying free online game. Designed to aid her recovery from a brain injury and subsequent depression, the game reportedly gives people a sense of control over their own health. Harnessing the mind in the fight against chronic illnesses is the subject of Jo Marchant’s book, Cure: A Journey Into the Science of Mind over Body” target=”_blank”>Cure: A Journey into the Science of Mind Over Body, which looks at the latest research into the science of mind over body. Rational thought and magic went hand in hand in the Renaissance period and the philosopher AC Grayling looks back at the life of John Dee – mathematician, alchemist and the Queen’s conjurer. The actor Simon McBurney tests the limits of perception and human consciousness as he recreates what it feels like to be lost in the remote part of the Brazilian rainforest.


Can a virtual reality game make you forget you’re in pain?

A couple of weeks from now I will be in hospital undergoing a knee replacement. It will be the most extreme surgery I’ve ever experienced and I’m pretty scared. I’ve been told that I can expect to endure excruciating pain afterwards but I won’t be allowed to lie in bed feeling sorry for myself. In order to ensure a good recovery I have to get up and exercise the new joint numerous times a day. Make no mistake, this is going to hurt.

It may not be too long, however, until patients like me will be able to ward off their agonies simply by playing virtual reality games. This surprising advance is already being tested, but the premise behind it is not new.

As neuroscientist David Linden recently explained on NPR, the brain has more control over pain than we might at first imagine. It can say “hey that’s interesting, turn up the volume on this pain information that’s coming in”, or it can say “turn down the volume on that and pay less attention to it”. In Linden’s book Touch: The Science of Hand, Heart, and Mind, he discusses how our perception of pain relies on the brain and how it processes information coming from the nervous system.

Lieutenant Sam Brown

Researchers are now attempting to see if this process can be manipulated through gaming. In the US, a group of patients suffering from severe burns were invited to play SnowWorld, a virtual reality computer game devised by two cognitive psychologists, Hunter Hoffman and Dave Patterson, to persuade the brain to ignore pain signals in favour of more compelling scenarios. Their motivation, Hoffman said was because opioids (morphine and morphine-related chemicals) can control burn pain when the patient is at rest, they are nowhere near adequate to quench the agony of daily bandage changes, wound cleaning and staple removals.

The best-known SnowWorld player is Lieutenant Sam Brown who, during his first tour of duty in Kandahar, Afghanistan, in 2008, suffered third degree burns over 30% of his body. An IED buried in a road hit the vehicle he was travelling in and exploded into a fireball, engulfing Brown in flames. His injuries were so severe he had to be kept in a medically induced coma for several weeks. Back in the US, Brown endured more than two dozen painful surgeries, but none were as bad as the daily ritual of caring for his wounds. When nurses attended to his burns and helped him perform the necessary physical therapies, he experienced the most excruciating pain.

In 2012, NBC News reported on Brown’s experience and how the pain of dressing burn wounds could be so intense it could make patients relive the original trauma. In Brown’s case the procedures were so unbearable that on some occasions his superior officers had to order him to undergo treatment.

For Brown, help arrived not in the form of new kinds of medicines or dressings, but by a video game. Brown was one of the first participants in SnowWorld’s pilot study, which was designed in conjunction with the US military, to test whether it really could help wounded soldiers.

A distracting annoyance

At the time, Hoffman’s main work at the University of Washington was using virtual reality techniques to help people overcome a pathological fear of spiders. Patterson, based at the Harborview Burn Centre in Seattle, is an expert in psychological techniques such as hypnosis that can be used to help burn patients.

It was already known that the way we experience pain can be psychologically manipulated – for example, anticipating pain can make it worse. Research looking at how soldiers experience pain has also revealed how emotions can affect how that pain feels. So if your brain
can interpret pain signals differently depending on what you’re thinking or feeling at the time, why not see if the experience of pain can be altered by deliberately diverting a patient’s attention towards something else? If it worked, the wound care could become more of a distracting annoyance and the distressing sensation of pain could be much reduced.

It was a long shot, but Hoffman’s expertise in virtual reality therapy made it possible to develop a game which offered that kind of diversion. To do this patients first put on a virtual reality headset and earphones and are then transported through an icy canyon filled with snowball hurling snowmen, flocks of squawking penguins, woolly mammoths and other surprises. Flying through the gently falling snow, they can then retaliate by throwing their own snowballs. Often, they get so involved with it that they don’t even notice when their procedure has finished.

In the interview with NBC Patterson explained how, during painful procedures like scrubbing off a wound, the patient is taken into a soothing and icy world, a completely different place from the reality. It works, he said, “for as long as people seem to be in the virtual world.”

The 2011 pilot study showed promising results. In some cases, soldiers with the worst pain reported that SnowWorld worked better than morphine. Brown himself is now much recovered, and attributes a large part of that success on his immersive experience.

Similar projects are happening elsewhere. In the UK, staff at Queen Elizabeth Hospital Birmingham and the University of Birmingham have been looking at how computer game technology can alleviate patients’ pain and discomfort through distraction therapy in which patients “wander around” a virtual world based on real locations in the Devon countryside. The idea is to combine authentic natural landscapes with virtual reality aids that help patients divert their attention from pain while also offering opportunities for real physical exercise – walking up hill, going over bridges, sitting on the beach – that creates movement inside the game.

As with SnowWorld, patients are generally injured military personnel. Most suffer from severe burns, but some also have phantom pain from amputated limbs.

Future applications

In the future, could virtual reality headsets like Oculus Rift provide convincing environments for pain relief and other medical applications? For example, for helping amputees learn to use new prosthetic limbs and treating PTSD. Research is also underway to discover whether virtual reality can be used to reduce chronic neck pain.

Social psychologist Brock Bastian is interested in the way pain affects us, and sees the phenomenon itself as a kind of virtual experience:

[Pain] is a kind of shortcut to mindfulness: it makes us suddenly aware of everything in the environment. It brutally draws us into a virtual sensory awareness of the world, much like meditation.

Pain is in the zeitgeist. In her new film, Cake, Jennifer Aniston portrays a woman tormented by fibromyalgia, a condition that causes chronic pain, following a devastating car accident. For her, however, it seems that relief might finally come not from escaping reality, but from embracing it.

Luckily for me, the pain of knee replacement is said to be severe but short-lived. Nevertheless, I plan to dust off my PS3 and experiment with one or two distracting computer games. We’ll see how that goes.

Sue Thomas, Visiting Fellow, The Media School, Bournemouth University

This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.

Mud pies and green spaces – why children do better when they can get outdoors

Greg Mannion, University of Stirling

The first warm weather here in the UK generally means a few things – the impending start of tennis at Wimbledon, school examination time, and the smell of cut grass. Inevitably, pupils and teachers start to wish they were outdoors and not stuck in a classroom. There is now a growing body of evidence why teachers should respond to these urges and incorporate outdoor places into their teaching and the school day more widely.

A new study published in Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences by a team of researchers from Spain, Norway, and the US found that time spent near or in green places, especially those in and around schools, can improve learners’ cognitive development. Payam Dadvand and colleagues found that pupils’ ability in memory tasks and to maintain attention improved over time if their schools had green spaces on their campus and nearby.

The study involved 2,500 children aged seven to ten in Barcelona, who were tested every three months over a 12-month period. The researchers found small but significant improvements in “working memory”, “superior working memory” and “attentiveness” in pupils with green areas near and in their schools. Importantly, in this rigorous study, the effects of greenness were found regardless of the socio-economic background and education of parents.

The Spanish-led team sought mainly to explain and explore the medical reasons for their findings. It could be, the authors argue, that with green spaces children are less exposed to traffic and the kinds of pollutants that are likely to negatively influence development, especially at the younger ages. There are also possible explanations such as the reduction of noise, the likelihood that children will be more active, and, the presence of natural microbes – which I think we can take to mean that “making mud pies” is good for your development.

Good for well-being

We have some way to go to grasp the other knock-on effects of green space. For example, we know from other studies that exercising in green spaces and greenness in one’s neighbourhood improves mental health through lowering the risk of anxiety and depression. It could be that happier children are better able to learn too.

Finnish psychologist Kalevi Korpela has done useful work in this area. He found that spending “time out”, time alone or times in one’s favourite place in nature have positive effects: reducing stress levels, muscle tension, heart rate and other physiological factors. It has been argued that being alone in nature is “restorative” for us, allowing us to clear our minds, and deal with our troubles, and feel better about ourselves. It even appears that the more stressed you are, the more likely that this solo time in nature will be the prescription required.

Different “dosages” of green space can have a range of different effects on different kinds of people that are only recently being uncovered. Richard Mitchell’s work in Scotland has found that access to green or recreational areas led to a narrowing of the differences between rich and poor on some measures around mental health. Another recent study looked at how even visually experiencing nature – in this case looking at photos and videos – may increase one’s disposition to cooperate and to engage in certain actions. For some, the type and duration of the required “dose” of green space in our increasingly urbanised settings is an important consideration as we move towards deeper understandings of its effects.

Greening the curriculum

Lacking in much of the research reported upon above is any in-depth consideration of the way people’s engagement with nature and green spaces are influenced by society and culture, and by the types of natural places they go to. In education, we need to do more work to understand better how pupils are using green spaces for travel to and from school, during playtime, and within the curriculum.

Given the wider literature on the effects of having green spaces nearby, we might expect that engaging in more purposeful activity in nature for educational ends (rather than merely looking at it or having it nearby) will boost pupil’s achievements and attainment. In my own research, funded by a consortium led by Scottish Natural Heritage in Scotland, we looked at the provision of outdoor learning opportunities for children.

Our study used teacher’s reports on pupil’s experience of over 1,000 lessons outdoors. We noted that outdoor educational provision had increased between 2006 and 2014. But, it was striking that outdoor experiences in green areas (such as parks, gardens, wildlife areas and woodland) were comprehensively seen by teachers as important for both increasing learner engagement and enhancing pupils’ “challenge and enjoyment”. This finding seems worthy of further investigation.

It seems that research across many areas and disciplines now needs to be combined to fully understand the green uplift effect in many aspects of education, health, development and well-being, particularly for young people. The majority of us will soon be living in cities worldwide so there are new and important reasons for planning for green space in all local areas but within and around schools and pre-schools. In the meantime, I suggest that we should begin to green our educational provision – and our own backyards and schoolyards are certainly a good place to begin.

Greg Mannion, Senior Lecturer, Director of Post-graduate Research, School of Education, University of Stirling

This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.