Brain-Training App Has Research-Backed Claims to Improve User Concentration

The app could potentially be quite useful, but it should be noted that research has been finding what a good brain workout exercise is.

A new ‘brain training’ game designed by researchers at the University of Cambridge improves users’ concentration, according to new research published today. The scientists behind the venture say this could provide a welcome antidote to the daily distractions that we face in a busy world.

In their book, The Distracted Mind: Ancient Brains in a High-Tech World, Adam Gazzaley and Larry D. Rosen point out that with the emergence of new technologies requiring rapid responses to emails and texts and working on multiple projects simultaneously, young people, including students, are having more problems with sustaining attention and frequently become distracted. This difficulty in focussing attention and concentrating is made worse by stress from a global environment that never sleeps and also frequent travel leading to jetlag and poor quality sleep.

“We’ve all experienced coming home from work feeling that we’ve been busy all day, but unsure what we actually did,” says Professor Barbara Sahakian from the Department of Psychiatry. “Most of us spend our time answering emails, looking at text messages, searching social media, trying to multitask. But instead of getting a lot done, we sometimes struggle to complete even a single task and fail to achieve our goal for the day. Then we go home, and even there we find it difficult to ‘switch off’ and read a book or watch TV without picking up our smartphones. For complex tasks we need to get in the ‘flow’ and stay focused.”

In recent years, as smartphones have become ubiquitous, there has been a growth in the number of so-called ‘brain training’ apps that claim to improve cognitive skills such as memory, numerical skills and concentration.

Now, a team from the Behavioural and Clinical Neuroscience Institute at the University of Cambridge, has developed and tested ‘Decoder’, a new game that is aimed at helping users improve their attention and concentration. The game is based on the team’s own research and has been evaluated scientifically.

In a study published today in the journal Frontiers in Behavioural Neuroscience Professor Sahakian and colleague Dr George Savulich have demonstrated that playing Decoder on an iPad for eight hours over one month improves attention and concentration. This form of attention activates a frontal-parietal network in the brain.

In their study, the researchers divided 75 healthy young adults into three groups: one group received Decoder, one control group played Bingo for the same amount of time and a second control group received no game. Participants in the first two groups were invited to attend eight one-hour sessions over the course of a month during which they played either Decoder or Bingo under supervision.

All 75 participants were tested at the start of the trial and then after four weeks using the CANTAB Rapid Visual Information Processing test (RVP). CANTAB RVP has been demonstrated in previously published studies to be a highly sensitive test of attention/concentration.

During the test, participants are asked to detect sequences of digits (e.g. 2-4-6, 3-5-7, 4-6-8). A white box appears in the middle of screen, of which digits from 2 to 9 appear in a pseudo-random order, at a rate of 100 digits per minute. Participants are instructed to press a button every time they detect a sequence. The duration of the test is approximately five minutes.

Results from the study showed a significant difference in attention as measured by the RVP. Those who played Decoder were better than those who played Bingo and those who played no game. The difference in performance was significant and meaningful as it was comparable to those effects seen using stimulants, such as methylphenidate, or nicotine. The former, also known as Ritalin, is a common treatment for Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD).

To ensure that Decoder improved focussed attention and concentration without impairing the ability to shift attention, the researchers also tested participants’ ability on the Trail Making Test. Decoder performance also improved on this commonly used neuropsychological test of attentional shifting. During this test, participants have to first attend to numbers and then shift their attention to letters and then shift back to numbers. Additionally, participants enjoyed playing the game, and motivation remained high throughout the 8 hours of gameplay.

Professor Sahakian commented: “Many people tell me that they have trouble focussing their attention. Decoder should help them improve their ability to do this. In addition to healthy people, we hope that the game will be beneficial for patients who have impairments in attention, including those with ADHD or traumatic brain injury. We plan to start a study with traumatic brain injury patients this year.”

Dr Savulich added: “Many brain training apps on the market are not supported by rigorous scientific evidence. Our evidence-based game is developed interactively and the games developer, Tom Piercy, ensures that it is engaging and fun to play. The level of difficulty is matched to the individual player and participants enjoy the challenge of the cognitive training.”

The game has now been licensed through Cambridge Enterprise, the technology transfer arm of the University of Cambridge, to app developer Peak, who specialise in evidence-based ‘brain training’ apps. This will allow Decoder to become accessible to the public. Peak has developed a version for Apple devices and is releasing the game today as part of the Peak Brain Training app. Peak Brain Training is available from the App Store for free and Decoder will be available to both free and pro users as part of their daily workout. The company plans to make a version available for Android devices later this year.

“Peak’s version of Decoder is even more challenging than our original test game, so it will allow players to continue to gain even larger benefits in performance over time,” says Professor Sahakian. “By licensing our game, we hope it can reach a wide audience who are able to benefit by improving their attention.”

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Long Sort of Interview on “Russian Meddling”

A long sort of interview with journalist Glenn Greenwald. The Russia “meddling in the election” story has sadly taken over much of American media focus, which is detrimental to the country and its need to focus on issues that would actually improve the well-being of the general population. There’s no hard evidence that the Russian government had a major impact on the election, and even if they did, the U.S. itself has a long history of interfering in elections. Beyond interfering in elections, the U.S. actually has a history of supporting horribly violent overthrows of sovereign governments. The U.S. supported the 1953 coup in Iran that lead to a brutal regime ruling in that country until 1979, for one brief example.

Another disappointing thing is the person even Fox News admits is the most popular politician in America — Senator Bernie Sanders — runs around the country showing what a strong and meaningfully popular political platform is. Senator Sanders doesn’t mention Russia much, as he has his eyes on what matters — e.g., the attacks that threaten to cut the safety net, the essential economic issues (inequality, taxing Wall Street, infrastructure), and healthcare. He literally has the blueprint and is vocal about expressing it, but still too few Democratic politicians are learning from it, such is the corrupting nature of excessive corporate campaign cash and the effect of the distracting Russia narrative.

There’s a spacing error with the third and fourth last paragraphs of the article, but I have to wonder how many people actually read through to see that.

And even if claims about Russian meddling are corroborated by Robert Mueller’s investigation, Greenwald’s not sure it adds up to much — some hacked emails changing hands, none all that damaging in their content, maybe some malevolent Twitter bots. In his eyes, the Russia-Trump story is a shiny red herring — one that distracts from the failures, corruption, and malice of the very Establishment so invested in promoting it. And when in January, as “Journalism Twitter” was chastising the president for one outrage or another, Congress quietly passed a bipartisan bill to reauthorize sweeping NSA surveillance, you had to admit Greenwald might have been onto something.

“When Trump becomes the starting point and ending point for how we talk about American politics, [we] don’t end up talking about the fundamental ways the American political and economic and cultural system are completely fucked for huge numbers of Americans who voted for Trump for that reason,” he says. “We don’t talk about all the ways the Democratic Party is a complete fucking disaster and a corrupt, sleazy sewer, and not an adequate alternative to this far-right movement that’s taking over American politics.”

[…]

“For me, the fundamental question is: How satisfied are you with the prevailing order, with the status quo?” By this, Greenwald does not mean life in the Trump era but the behavior of American elites over the past several generations. “How benevolent do you regard American power and American institutions?”

Government Budget Deficits as Overblown Concerns

Government budget deficits can actually be beneficial if the spending that results in them is in the public interest. This is contrasted with large trade deficits, however, which in wealthy countries have a negative impact on demand in the economy. Both of these truths are important to know for public policy debates.

There are three ways in which deficits or debt can be seen as a problem. First, large deficits can overheat the economy leading to high interest rates or high inflation. Second, a large debt can impose a significant interest burden on the government and implicitly on future taxpayers. The third way is that excessive indebtedness can cause a country to become uncreditworthy, making it difficult or impossible to finance the government. None of these issues plausibly apply to the United States at present.

The first point is the classic story in which large amounts of government borrowing pulls capital away from the private sector. This would be bad news because businesses and state and local governments would have to pay higher interest rates, which would reduce their investment. With less investment, we would see less productivity growth, which would mean that we would be poorer in the future.

There are times when excessive deficits may crowd out investment, but this is clearly not one of them. Interest rates are extraordinarily low. In fact, they are far lower than in the years at the end 1990s when we were running surpluses.

There also is no evidence that excessive spending has led to inflation. The Federal Reserve Board has been struggling for most of the last decade to raise an inflation rate it views as too low.

The second issue is that the debt service — the amount of interest that we pay on the debt each year — will impose a large burden requiring either higher taxes or cuts in other spending or some combination. There also is no basis for this concern at present.

The interest that the government pays on its debt each year comes to around 1.0 percent of GDP, after we subtract the amount that was paid to the Federal Reserve Board and then refunded back to the Treasury. By comparison, the interest burden was more than 3.0 percent of GDP at the start of the 1990s.

It is also worth noting that the much larger interest burden of the 1990s did not prevent us from having a very prosperous decade. In other words, there is a long way to go before we face any serious problem by this measure.

Finally, there is the argument that we could end up in the same situation as Greece was in a few years back, where no one wants to lend money to the U.S. government. There are two major reasons the United States will not end up like Greece.

First, we borrow in our own currency. The U.S. prints dollars; we don’t have to worry about being able to borrow them. By contrast, Greece borrowed in euros, which it did not print.

This brings up the second point; we could print so much money that we face hyperinflation, like Zimbabwe did in the last decade. In principle, that could happen, but the problem in that case would be having a weak economy, not having a large debt. As long as the U.S. economy remains strong and grows at a respectable pace, we will never end up like Zimbabwe.

If we need proof of this fact, we need only look at Japan. The country has a debt that is two-and-a-half times as large as the U.S. debt relative to the size of its economy. Nonetheless, it can borrow long-term at a near zero interest rate. Its inflation rate has also been near zero as the government has been desperately trying to increase inflation for the last two decades.

In short, the country has many real problems. Tens of millions of young people struggle to pay for college. Young parents struggle to pay for quality child care and tens of millions of people have inadequate health care insurance.

These are all issues that deserve our attention. The federal debt is just a huge distraction.