This is a review of “Beat City” – a Nintendo DS (2D) game that I believe has all the hallmarks of something that, although designed purely for pleasure, may actually improve brain function. A recent scientific review outlined several video games that, despite being developed only with gameplay and sales in mind, were nonetheless found to improve visual perception, sustained attention, task switching, rapid option selection and several other vital aspects of cognition. With this in mind I’ve been keeping an eye out for other games that might fall into this category.
Kids who play a musical instrument boast better language development than their peers who do not. The Einstein Aging Study found that elderly participants who regularly play a musical instrument exhibited greater cognitive reserve than those that did not – helping them keep the ravages of Alzheimer’s at bay for longer.
The upshot is that whether you’re very old, very young or somewhere in between, not only can playing a musical instrument create a torrent of activity in your brain’s pleasure pathways, but it can also be of long term benefit for a variety of different brain areas that support several cognitive functions.
Beat City involves travelling around a comic book stylised world on a mission to bring music back into the lives of local inhabitants – by tapping along to the beat of a variety of electronic tunes. You are the “Synchroniser,” a brave inhabitant of Beat City who is hell-bent on freeing his fellow citizens from their banal tuneless existence. En route you encounter several bizarre characters with whom you must do battle by tapping, swiping and holding the beat in time to music of varying complexity. Although upon first appearances it may seem to be aimed at younger audiences, this game gets tough – tough enough to provide even those naturally musical people out there (even my girlfriend who reached grade 8 in three different musical instruments!) with a challenge as you progress through harder and harder levels.
For the rest of us even the early levels can prove quite taxing. Hitting a rich vein of form is rewarded with a visual technicolour treat. The muted greys of Beat City are yanked out of their dreary and monotonous existence by your beat perfect music making, with the screen springing into life with a vivid burst of colour (and the characters ending up wearing increasingly bizarre fancy dress outfits.)
Reproducing a beat with accurate timing taxes a fair few different brain areas. The auditory cortex – distributed predominantly across the upper level of the temporal lobes (see diagram on the right) – crunches the soundwaves into what we actually hear through a division of labour across different patches of brain cortex which each extract different types of information. Firstly, the sound is separated out into its different frequencies at the cochlea in the inner ear and ferried to the primary auditory cortex (shown inset on the right). Some specialist areas are involved in establishing the rhythm. Others find and create the perception of melody. Functional units residing predominantly in left side of most people’s brain will extract the meaning from words in a song. Others, mainly in the right half of the brain, extract the emotional tone of the music. Then there are the brain areas involved in tapping along to the beat: pre-motor regions of the frontal cortex plan the movements and the motor strip triggers them. In order to get the timing just right, the cerebellum – hanging off the back of the brain – finesses the signal on its journey from brain to finger muscles to ensure that the stylus hits the touch screen precisely in time with the beat as opposed to a little too early or late. In Beat City, the accuracy with which you time each tap is indicated on screen by the size and colour of a musical note.
To recap: different brain areas simultaneously extract different features from the sounds that reach the ear to creates sense of hearing in our everyday lives. Patterns in the sound are automatically extracted and we naturally anticipate when the next sound is likely to occur, enabling us to synchronise our actions according to the patterns in the sounds. This instinctive impact of rhythmical sound on movement is where the urge to dance comes from.
Clapping, singing or playing a musical instrument requires different cognitive functions to operate simultaneously and interactively. Having to listen to, follow the rhythm of and anticipate changes in a musical score in order to producing carefully coordinated finger, hand (and for wind instruments: also mouth and respiratory tract) movements is a highly cognitively demanding task. Growth of extra connections (and therefore increased efficiency) in brain areas involved in perceiving sounds and producing accurately timed, precise, carefully coordinated movements are just the front and back ends of the brain workout.
In addition, prefrontal brain areas responsible for working memory, anticipation, vigilance, error correction and many other cognitive functions are also put through their paces by virtue of having to ensure that the two processes are properly integrated.
At the end of the day even if Beat City doesn’t inspire the desire to play a proper musical instrument, enabling the full brain-benefits of musical engagement to be earned, I believe it is nonetheless an effective way of challenging and thus improve your capacity for working memory, concentration and fine motor control that will come in useful in everyday life as well.
In addition to these brain posts you can catch my daily #braintweet by following me on Twitter.
MTV is the last place you’d expect to find a neuroscientist, right? Wrong! Tonight (Wed 16th Nov 2011) at 8pm GMT I make my second appearance on MTV’s Plain Jane. Yes, I know, it’s a makeover show. You may well be of the opinion that I should choose the series I contribute to better. And you might be right. However, in my defence I would say that, as my aim is to make neuroscience interesting and accessible to the widest possible audience, contributing to such a show allows me to reach people that are wholly unlikely to tune into anything vaguely scientific whether on the BBC, Channel 4, Sky or Discovery. So I saw Plain Jane as an opportunity to raise the profile of neuroscience in the minds of a new audience and to offer my knowledge of dating behaviour that increases the chances of getting the brain of a young lady’s romantic target into the state we know as love.
Tonight’s candidate, Jamie from Chicago, is a lovely girl with a big crush on a young man by the name of Adam. She lacks nothing but a bit of self-confidence and few fashion tips from Louise. As part of the preparation for her big date in Lake Como (lucky girl) we met in Spitalfield’s Market one windy Sunday last summer in trendy London’s favourite shopping/nightspot – Shoreditch.
I set her the rather unusual challenge of offering unsuspecting passers by a hand massage to give her the opportunity to practice some flirting tactics. Sounds a bit odd admittedly but my thinking was this. Number 1: if she was physically holding onto them then they couldn’t get away until she was done with them. Number 2: physical contact between two humans causes the release of oxytocin in the brain.
If you’re trying to get someone to fall in love with you oxytocin-release is what you’re after. It is a vital neurohormone for creating a social bond between two humans as it makes a person feel safe, happy and secure. There are many things you can do to increase release of oxytocin in a person brain: offer words of support when a person is scared or vulnerable, do someone a favour in their time of need – pretty much any altruistic gesture of support will do it. But physical contact is certainly one of the most potent ways to achieve this goal when standing in the middle of a pedestrianised shopping precinct.
The other tip was to avoid typical topics of conversation that flit into a person’s head when they haven’t really thought about it: like what a person does for a living, what they had for breakfast etc. Of course, the aim of effective flirting is to excite the date not bore them to death.
On the whole people love nothing more than to hear the sound of their own voice; ideally talking about themselves. So I encouraged her to give them ample opportunity to do so by steering them onto subject matters that are likely to boost their self-esteem. Using a simple mnemonic technique using the Palm of the hand, Thumb and Forefinger I suggested that she try and steer them into topics involving their Passions, Talents and Fantasies. That way the brain areas involved in creating feelings of excitement and pleasure should be maximally stimulated. The idea is to forge subconscious associations between being in your presence and positive emotional states to make them want more of the same.
I have no idea whether she employed any of that advice in her luxurious date on the banks of Lake Como. Regardless, my main aim was that these neuro-informed brain tips would help viewers find romance in their real lives and realise that knowing how the brain works can be both interesting and come in useful from time to time. The very artificial and impersonal set up Jamie had to endure was always going to make her job of kindling love under the bright lights and watchful eye of cameras very difficult. My fingers are crossed that, despite the tough circumstances, she manages to get her guy tonight at 8pm GMT on MTV.
In addition to these fortnightly brainposts you can get a daily #braintweet by following me on Twitter.