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Fishing for facts: The Great Brain Experiment

21 Nov, 2013
One of four new games in The Great Brain Experiment

One of four new games in The Great Brain Experiment

Attention all brain-gamers, neuroscientists, and the plain old neuro-curious…. Today sees the relaunch of The Great Brain Experiment, the world’s largest cognitive science experiment which anyone (owning a phone and aged over 18) can take part in.

Rick Adams, a neuroscientist from UCL’s Wellcome Trust Centre for Neuroimaging (WTCN), tells us more about it.

Are men bigger risk-takers than women? And are they more unhappy when they lose? Are younger people more impulsive than older people? What about Northerners and Southerners? If you are more impulsive, is your short term (‘working’) memory likely to be better or worse? Is there any relationship between these things and how quickly your brain can register new information? And most importantly – who is happier: iPhone or Android owners? Find out below….

Back in March of this year, a team of my fellow neuroscientists from the WTCN set out to answer these questions and many more with our app: The Great Brain Experiment. This was an experiment with a difference – in fact, several big differences.

First of all, most people who want to take part in neuroscience experiments have to come to our laboratory. TGBE is an app which is freely available on iPhone and Android phones, and so anyone who wants to can download it and get experimenting. The app then sends us the data (with your permission, of course) so we can analyse it. In fact, we got much more data than we ever anticipated – 50,000 people have played the app so far. This means that instead of having 20 psychology undergraduates from London as our subjects, we have a huge variety of people with different backgrounds, ages and locations, and so we can ask more detailed questions of the kind I mention above.

Second, we don’t like to admit it, but a lot of neuroscience experiments can be pretty boring. This is why we asked an experienced game-programmer – Neil Millstone of White Bat Games – to help turn our experiments into fun-to-play computer games. We think he did a great job: the games are fun and surprisingly addictive – we’ve noticed some people play them for hours!  

Third, most people who take part in experiments never get to find out how their performance compares with everyone else’s, and they never get a chance to improve. Our games will tell you a bit about the science behind the experiment, and – most importantly – how you measure up to everyone else who has played.

The Great Brain Experiment 2.0

So what next for TGBE? We’ve acquired so much data this way that we are still in the process of analysing it all. We’ve already got one paper in the pipeline, but until it’s published we shouldn’t talk about the results: if you’re interested, watch this space. We can reveal a few things though, so if you’re curious about the differences between iPhone and Android users, keep reading…

While we have been analysing away, another group of neuroscientists from the WTCN have come up with some new games for our dedicated ‘citizen neuroscientists’ to try. These games are the basis of our TGBE relaunch, which is happening this week, although there are also some extra features in the app itself.

What is special about TGBE 2.0, then? Unlike most of the original games, based on well-known cognitive psychology experiments, the four new tasks are all unique to our centre. So no matter how many psychology departments you visit, you won’t find these games anywhere else! Another new feature of TGBE 2.0 is its messaging system. This will allow us to contact people (anonymously, of course) within the game: we can send out short questionnaires, for example, or ask players with unusual scores if they’d like to come to our lab for a brain scanning experiment.

Coconut shy

A series of three screens from another game in The Great Brain Experiment

What are the games about? One (above) is a bit like the classic coconut shy, in which you have to hit a target to win points. In our version, we look at how different kinds of pressure can affect the accuracy of your movements – both the pressure of time, or of gaining or losing points. Every England football fan knows that pressure can have terrible effects on even expert penalty takers: this game looks at how this can happen.

We also use a card game to look at how good people are at making risky decisions, and how much they are willing to pay (not in real money, of course) for some information to help them choose. Sometimes it’s fun to take a big chance, but then if you always do that you will quickly run out of money. We’ve all been living with the consequences of risky decision-making in our banks, and there is ongoing debate on how to help people make better long-term rather than short-term gains.

The third game uses a fishing expedition (top image) to ask how good we are at making predictions about the future based on what we’ve seen in the past. Sometimes our environment doesn’t change very much – anyone who has worked in the same office for a long time will agree with that – but sometimes it changes very quickly (at the office Christmas party, perhaps), and we need to able to make guesses about the future in both situations.

Radar game

Data from the games helps scientists understand our brains

The last game (right) is unique among all our games, in that it is not about what’s happening onscreen, but what you can hear in your headphones. This game addresses the “cocktail party problem”, which is the question of how we are able to extract and attend to a sound of interest with lots of background noise present: like hearing your name spoken at a party. You play a radar operator who has to work out whether the sounds you can hear are coming from a ship or something else floating around in the sea. You won’t be able to play this one on a noisy Tube train, we promise.

You can find out much more by just going to the app store on Android or Apple and just downloading the game (if you haven’t already). Which reminds me… it turns out iPhone owners are on average slightly happier than their Android counterparts, but on the downside they tend to be older too. Who has the best short term memory, we don’t (yet) know….

Rick Adams

Image credits: All images are screenshots from The Great Brain Experiment games.

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