“Gamifying psychological interventions successfully could revolutionize how we treat mental illness and how we view our own mental health.”
Playing a science-based mobile gaming app for 25 minutes can reduce anxiety in stressed individuals, according to research published in Clinical Psychological Science, a journal of the Association for Psychological Science.
The study suggests that “gamifying” a scientifically-supported intervention could offer measurable mental health and behavioral benefits for people with relatively high levels of anxiety.
“Millions of people suffering from psychological distress fail to seek or receive mental health services. A key factor here is that many evidence-based treatments are burdensome — time consuming, expensive, difficult to access, and perceived as stigmatizing,” says lead researcher Tracy Dennis of Hunter College.
“Given this concerning disparity between need and accessibility of services, it is crucial for psychological researchers to develop alternative treatment delivery systems that are more affordable, accessible, and engaging.”
That’s where the mobile app comes in.
The game is based on an emerging cognitive treatment for anxiety called attention-bias modification training (ABMT). Essentially, this treatment involves training patients to ignore a threatening stimulus (such as an angry face) and to focus instead on a non-threatening stimulus (such as a neutral or happy face). This type of training has been shown to reduce anxiety and stress among people suffering from high anxiety.
In the study, about 75 participants — who all scored relatively high on an anxiety survey — were required to follow two characters around on the screen, tracing their paths as quickly and accurately as possible.
After playing the game for either 25 or 45 minutes, the participants were asked to give a short speech to the researchers while being recorded on video — an especially stressful situation for these participants.
The videos revealed that participants who played the ABMT-based version of the game showed less nervous behavior and speech during their talk and reported less negative feelings afterward than those in the placebo group.
“Even the ‘short dosage’ of the app — about 25 minutes — had potent effects on anxiety and stress measured in the lab,” explains Dennis, who co-authored the study with Laura O’Toole of The City University of New York. “This is good news in terms of the potential to translate these technologies into mobile app format because use of apps tends to be brief and ‘on the go.’”
The researchers are currently investigating whether even shorter stints of play – similar to how we normally play other smartphone games — would have the same anxiety-reducing effect.
“We’re examining whether use of the app in brief 10-minute sessions over the course of a month successfully reduces stress and promotes positive birth outcomes in moderately anxious pregnant women,” Dennis says.
While it’s unclear whether this app would produce mental health benefits in those with clinically-diagnosed anxiety, it does present a compelling case for gamified ABMT acting as a “cognitive vaccine” against anxiety and stress. The researchers believe that apps could eventually be developed to assist in the treatment for other mental health disorders, such as depression or addiction.
“Gamifying psychological interventions successfully could revolutionize how we treat mental illness and how we view our own mental health. Our hope is to develop highly accessible and engaging evidence-based mobile intervention strategies that can be used in conjunction with traditional therapy or that can be ‘self-curated’ by the individual as personal tools to promote mental wellness,” Dennis concludes.
The findings could inform new kinds of treatment for people with self-perception disorders, including anorexia.
A visual projection of human heartbeats can be used to generate an “out-of-body experience,” according to new research to be published in Psychological Science, a journal of the Association for Psychological Science. The findings could inform new kinds of treatment for people with self-perception disorders, including anorexia.
The study, conducted by Jane Aspell of Anglia Ruskin University in the UK and Lukas Heydrich of the Swiss Federal Institute of Technology in Lausanne, is novel in that it shows that information about the internal state of the body — in this case, the heartbeat — can be used to change how people experience their own body and self.
Volunteers in the study were fitted with a head mounted display (HMD), which served as “virtual reality goggles.” They were filmed in real time by a video camera connected to the HMD, which allowed them to view their own body standing two meters in front of them.
By also recording the volunteers’ heartbeat signals using electrodes, the timing of the heartbeat was used to trigger a bright flashing outline which was superimposed on the virtual body shown via the HMD.
After watching the outline flash on and off in sync with the heartbeat for several minutes, the subjects experienced a stronger identification with the virtual body, reporting that it felt more like their own body. They also perceived that they were at a different location in the room than their physical body, reporting feeling closer to their double than they actually were, and they experienced touch at a different location to their physical body.
“This research demonstrates that the experience of one’s self can be altered when presented with information about the internal state of one’s body, such as a heartbeat,” says Aspell.
“This is compatible with the theory that the brain generates our experience of self by merging information about our body from multiple sources, including the eyes, the skin, the ears, and even one’s internal organs.”
In the future, Aspell hopes the research might help people suffering with self-perception problems, including anorexia and body dysmorphic disorder. She is currently working on a study about “yo-yo dieters” and how their self-perception changes as they gain and lose weight.
“Patients with anorexia, for example, have a disconnection from their own body,” Aspell added. “They look in the mirror and think they are larger than they actually are. This may be because their brain does not update its representation of the body after losing weight, and the patient is therefore stuck with a perception of a larger self that is out of date.”