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Mind Hacks
By Tom Stafford, Matt Webb
November 2004
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Improve Visual Attention Through Video Games
Some of the constraints on how fast we can task-switch or observe simultaneously aren't fixed. They can be trained by playing first-person action video games
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Our visual processing abilities are by no means hardwired and fixed from birth. There are limits, but the brain's nothing if not plastic. With practice, the attentional mechanisms that sort and edit visual information can be improved. One activity that requires you to practice lots of the skills involved in visual attention is playing video games.

So, what effect does playing lots of video games have? Shawn Green and Daphne Bavelier from the University of Rochester, New York, have researched precisely this question; their results were published in the paper "Action Video Game Modifies Visual Attention,"1 available online at http://www.bcs.rochester.edu/people/daphne/visual.html#video.

Two of the effects they looked at we've talked about elsewhere in this book. The attentional blink [Hack #39] is that half-second recovery time required to spot a second target in a rapid-fire sequence. And subitizing is that alternative to counting for very low numbers (4 and below), the almost instantaneous mechanism we have for telling how many items we can see [Hack #35]. Training can both increase the subitization limit and shorten the attentional blink, meaning we're able to simultaneously spot more of what we want to spot, and do it faster too.

In Real Life

Green and Bavelier's results are significant because processes like subitizing [Hack #35] are used continuously in the way we perceive the world. Even before perception reaches conscious attention, our attention is flickering about the world around us, assimilating information. It's mundane, but when you look to see how many potatoes are in the cupboard, you'll "just know" if the quantity fits under your subitization limit and have to count them—using conscious awareness—if not.

Consider the attentional blink, which is usually half a second (for the elderly, this can double). A lot can happen in that time, especially in this information-dense world: are we missing a friend walking by on the street or cars on the road? These are the continuous perceptions we have of the world, perceptions that guide our actions. And the limits on these widely used abilities aren't locked but are trainable by doing tasks that stretch those abilities: fast-paced computer games.

I'm reminded of Douglas Engelbart's classic paper "Augmenting Human Intellect"2 on his belief in the power of computers. He wrote this in 1962, way before the PC, and argued that it's better to improve and facilitate the tiny things we do every day rather than attempt to replace entire human jobs with monolithic machines. A novel-writing machine, if one were invented, just automates the process of writing novels, and it's limited to novels. But making a small improvement to a pencil, for example, has a broad impact: any task that involves pencils is improved, whether it's writing novels, newspapers, or sticky notes. The broad improvement brought about by this hypothetical better pencil is in our basic capabilities, not just in writing novels. Engelbart's efforts were true to this: the computer mouse (his invention) heightened our capability to work with computers in a small, but pervasive, fashion.

Subitizing is a like a pencil of conscious experience. Subitizing isn't just responsible for our ability at a single task (like novel writing), it's involved in our capabilities across the board, whenever we have to apply visual attention to more than a single item simultaneously. That we can improve such a fundamental capability, even just a little, is significant, especially since the way we make that improvement is by playing first-person shooter video games. Building a better pencil is a big deal.

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