The Great Brain Experiment App Can Measure Memory and Impulsiveness

Most people take advantage of mobile technology in order to make common daily tasks easier and more accessible. For instance, you use a Yelp app on your tablet or smartphone to find the perfect restaurant in your area, read up on the best dishes to order, and check out a map that gets you there without a wrong turn. You could just pop open a phone book or wander until you find something that looks good, but who wants to take all that time, or potentially end up with a dud selection? Yet not all apps have such a simple and obvious goal in mind. One recent addition to the iOS app store is called The Great Brain Experiment. And while on the surface it’s a fun way to just pass the time, a quick look under the hood will reveal the game’s true intention. For the design team behind it, The Great Brain Experiment is a unique way to study the inner workings of humanity.

The app was actually created by a group of neuroscientists working out of the United Kingdom. Launch the game on your smartphone or tablet and you’re posed with a set of mental challenges. One is a simple memory game, another tests your ability to stop urges in their tracks, another tests your ability to uncover the meaning in an image. There are also varying tests to explore your willingness to attempt risky behavior, and how you respond to various rewards. To the player it’s a unique diversion, something to give you a break from yet another game of Angry Birds, perhaps. But to the neuroscientists behind The Great Brain Experiment, the game provides a large scale picture of how the human brain works. Beyond that, it even reveals variations based on a range of gender, education and age variables.

According to Harriet Brown a student in the neuroscience PhD program at University College London’s Center for Neuroimaging, what you’re seeing here is the future of this medical specialization. The world has gotten much smaller as technology breaks down barriers between people and nations. This is one of the ways that science can reap a benefit. Instead of spending years working with two dozen people at a time in a laboratory environment, a game like this allows you to collect data on tens of thousands of people over the course of several weeks or months. It expands the possibilities of research, improves the results and dramatically shortens the timeframe.

It’s also interesting to note that The Great Brain Experiment also improves the diversity of test subjects a neuroscientist can reach. In Ms. Brown’s experience, people who volunteer to be a part of a study are geographically limited, in that they must live in close proximity to the lab where the test is taking place, and they also have some sort of personal interest in being a part of an experiment. That often means they are studying or working in the psychology or medical fields, therefore returning a thin and limited sample of types of people. The app has only been out for a little more than a month, and the team has already received data from more than 20,000 people.

The insights from this data are profound. One of the results Ms. Brown pointed out is the information the staff are receiving as it pertains to impulsive or abusive behavior. One of the games tests your ability to stop yourself from doing something you really want to keep doing. How a player scores could show a proclivity for various brain conditions, such as gambling, drug addiction or ADHD. After a time, the team expect to better understand how people with normal brain functions end up facing these damaging behaviors, and to hopefully help them avoid these problems before they end up in a drug addiction treatment facility.

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