Using gam­i­fied train­ing to improve cog­ni­tive control

Niko Stein­beis, UCL
@LabDcp

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Dr Niko Stein­beis:
Okay, here you go. Thank you so much, Jo, for the won­der­ful invi­ta­tion to come here. Are there you go, start my video. To present here today. It’s a real­ly won­der­ful oppor­tu­ni­ty and it’s actu­al­ly pret­ty much one of the first times that we’re going to be pre­sent­ing data from the games that we have designed togeth­er with Caul­dron. So the top­ic of the talk is Train­ing Cog­ni­tive Con­trol Using a Gam­i­fied Approach, and I’ll take you through step by step what exact­ly it is that we mean by that. In terms of the back­ground, then what exact­ly it is that we mean by cog­ni­tive con­trol? So this is very much to do with some­thing that we are try­ing to achieve each day, that is reach and man­age goals on a short term and a longterm basis. So we go through­out our day try­ing to achieve those goals, be it mak­ing break­fast, or get­ting some work done in the short-term, or slight­ly more long-term and more ambi­tious goals, such as try­ing to lose weight, or climb­ing the Mat­ter­horn in Switzer­land or even pub­lish­ing in nature.

Dr Niko Stein­beis:
So we’re try­ing to nav­i­gate our day-to-day in achiev­ing these goals and to be able to do that, we need to keep focus on the goal. We need to keep it in mind. And more impor­tant­ly, we need to try and resist temp­ta­tion on the way of achiev­ing that goal. And that requires us to inhib­it impuls­es that would stop us from achiev­ing those long-term goals. So cog­ni­tive con­trol then in terms of a more for­mal def­i­n­i­tion, sup­ports flex­i­ble and adap­tive respons­es to envi­ron­men­tal changes in the pur­suit of goals that we have in mind. And it’s been shown to be incred­i­bly impor­tant for a range of oth­er domains and real life out­comes. So it sup­ports qual­i­ty of rela­tion­ships. It is very pre­dic­tive of aca­d­e­m­ic attain­ment. It’s strong­ly relat­ed to well­be­ing, as well as men­tal and phys­i­cal health. And even more impor­tant­ly, the extent or abil­i­ties of cog­ni­tive con­trol dur­ing child­hood, are high­ly, high­ly pre­dic­tive of cog­ni­tive con­trol lat­er life and all those oth­er out­comes and aspects relates to cog­ni­tive con­trol lat­er in life.

Dr Niko Stein­beis:
So as such, it’s a real­ly foun­da­tion­al cog­ni­tive skill that’s impor­tant for a range of domains, which are real­ly impor­tant for lat­er life suc­cess and well­be­ing. Now, giv­en that cog­ni­tive con­trol plays such a core role in our every­day lives, there’s been a lot of dis­cus­sion and attempts to try and sup­port cog­ni­tive con­trol and improve it through ded­i­cat­ed train­ings. So I’ll talk a lit­tle bit about plas­tic­i­ty and the lit­er­a­ture so far on plas­tic­i­ty of cog­ni­tive con­trol. So it’s a real­ly, real­ly impor­tant ques­tion giv­en how impor­tant exec­u­tive func­tions and cog­ni­tive con­trol are for lat­er life. Well-being now so far today, most of the work and attempts to try and approve con­tent con­trol have focused on work­ing mem­o­ry. So that’s the abil­i­ty to keep infor­ma­tion in mind. So if we relate this to keep­ing goals in mind, work­ing mem­o­ry is very, very impor­tant. If we keep for­get­ting what it is that we want­ed to do, then we would­n’t be able to achieve it in the first place that work­ing mem­o­ry plays a real­ly impor­tant role in all of this.

Dr Niko Stein­beis:
But the evi­dence has been quite lim­it­ed in terms of stud­ies on train­ing cog­ni­tive con­trol. So it’s been pri­mar­i­ly focused on work­ing mem­o­ry. And the basic log­ic behind try­ing to improve cog­ni­tive con­trol of work­ing mem­o­ry in this par­tic­u­lar case is this, that we see a very strong rela­tion­ship in chil­dren for instance, between indi­vid­ual dif­fer­ences or abil­i­ties in work­ing mem­o­ry, so the extent to which we can keep infor­ma­tion in mind and aca­d­e­m­ic achieve­ments such as math or read­ing or IQ. So there’s a very well estab­lished rela­tion­ship between the two. And the idea is then that if we try and improve or train work­ing mem­o­ry, we also ought to see asso­ci­at­ed improve­ment in these relat­ed domains, such as aca­d­e­m­ic achieve­ment and IQ, but we don’t actu­al­ly see that. So by now there’s a lot of evi­dence that these so-called far trans­fer­ence and effects are extreme­ly elu­sive and very, very dif­fi­cult to get.

Dr Niko Stein­beis:
And this is baf­fling for a range of dif­fer­ent rea­sons because we know that expe­ri­ences gen­er­al­ize in long-last­ing ways and nat­ur­al learn­ing con­text. So just tak­ing edu­ca­tion for instance. And we also know that exec­u­tive func­tions or cog­ni­tive con­trol, it can be per­sis­tent­ly affect­ed by neg­a­tive events. So stress for instance, that can real­ly impact cog­ni­tive con­trol in long last­ing way. So why is it so hard to real­ly improve and train cog­ni­tive con­trol in long-last­ing ways? So the main ques­tion that we’ve pur­sued in our lab is whether improv­ing cog­ni­tive con­trol trans­fers to oth­er domains, and if it does, whether it’s also durable?

Dr Niko Stein­beis:
So I’ll talk a lit­tle bit about the train­ing and go to the actu­al approach that we use to do this, which is where Caul­dron came in and has been incred­i­bly cre­ative and, yeah, sup­port­ive try­ing to get this off the ground. So the basic idea is that at the very core of all of this is a very sim­ple cog­ni­tive con­trol task. This is called a Stop Sig­nal Reac­tion Time Task, where par­tic­i­pants are asked to respond to the pre­sen­ta­tion of a visu­al stim­u­lus on a screen. Each time they see a cir­cle for instance, they’re meant to press a but­ton. On some tri­als, 25% of the tri­als, they hear an audi­to­ry stim­u­lus. And when they hear the audi­to­ry stim­u­lus, which is played with a very, very short delay after the visu­al stim­u­lus, they have to inhib­it. And what’s inter­est­ing is that the delay between the go sig­nal and the stop sig­nal wax­es and wanes with indi­vid­ual per­for­mance. And the short­er the delay is the eas­i­er it is to inhib­it. And the longer the delay is the hard­er it is to inhibit.

Dr Niko Stein­beis:
So this is a very sim­ple test, which allows us to look at indi­vid­ual dif­fer­ences in cog­ni­tive con­trol abil­i­ties, but also the fact that there is such a thing as a Stop Sig­nal Delay, which is what this is called. It allows us to use this to actu­al­ly train inhi­bi­tion in a real­ly nice and well con­trolled and adap­tive fash­ion. So that’s exact­ly what we did. We lever­aged this par­tic­u­lar very, very sim­ple cog­ni­tive task to train inhi­bi­tion. So we have two groups, two groups that trained, one was the cog­ni­tive con­trol train­ing or what we call the exper­i­men­tal group. They were asked to respond to the go sig­nal and to inhib­it to the stop sig­nal. That was the exper­i­men­tal group. And then we had a con­trol group, which just, a trained response speed. So every time they saw the visu­al stim­u­lus, they pressed a but­ton as fast as they could.

Dr Niko Stein­beis:
What was real­ly impor­tant is that the task got eas­i­er and hard­er depend­ing on how good indi­vid­ual par­tic­i­pants were over indi­vid­ual train­ings. Now, one of the core chal­lenges in all of this is that we need lots and lots of train­ing to see durable effects. So what we went for, we designed a train­ing that last­ed eight weeks in total and where our par­tic­i­pants were asked to train four times a week. And to make sure that they actu­al­ly do this train­ing as well, we had to imple­ment a cou­ple of fea­tures. And again, that’s where the cre­ativ­i­ty of Caul­dron came in. So first off we opt­ed to mak­ing this gam­i­fied. We pre­sent­ed par­tic­i­pants with this task. They would get bored very, very quick­ly. And in our par­tic­u­lar case, we were look­ing at chil­dren to sort of increase the impact of all of this. And if we did­n’t make this in a gam­i­fied fash­ion, inter­est­ing fash­ion, then they get very, very bored and drop out very quickly.

Dr Niko Stein­beis:
So the gam­i­fi­ca­tion was absolute­ly key. And I’ll give you a cou­ple of exam­ples, how we did this. We tried to make it very vari­able through­out. And we made it adap­tive. So as I said, the train­ing got eas­i­er and hard­er, depend­ing on how good our par­tic­i­pants were. We made it com­plex and diverse. So I’ll show you exact­ly how we did that. So we pre­sent­ed to them with an over­ar­ch­ing nar­ra­tive by telling them that they had crashed a plane. They were a pilot and they’d crashed a plane in the desert. And to fix their plane, they need­ed to find the Sage. The Sage was able to give them spare parts, and to get the spare parts from the Sage they need­ed to col­lect trea­sure along the way. And to get the trea­sure, they nav­i­gat­ed these dif­fer­ent worlds. And in these worlds they were pre­sent­ed with tasks that gave them trea­sure, but also these tasks were used to train cog­ni­tive control.

Dr Niko Stein­beis:
So I’ll just give a short video here. So this is just a visu­al pre­sen­ta­tion here. This is where our par­tic­i­pants were at any giv­en point in the worlds which they nav­i­gat­ed. So here they are just about to enter a world. And we gave them a cou­ple of choic­es in terms of the kind of world that they’re about to enter. Before each game they were giv­en instruc­tions and here is one of the sets of instruc­tions. So here they were meant to press a but­ton each time they see a rock. But some­times there would be a gem dis­played in the rock. And when that hap­pens, there you go they weren’t meant to press the but­tons. So that’s exact­ly an indi­ca­tion of go tri­al and the stop tri­al. So you had eight dif­fer­ent games designed like this, and we changed the set­ting, we changed the con­text in ways to try and make this inter­est­ing and engaging.

Dr Niko Stein­beis:
So what I’m going to present to you now… Isn’t it fun? I love these games. So what I’m going to present to you now, a lit­tle bit more of the meth­ods and then some of the data in terms of how chil­dren actu­al­ly engage with these games. So we use this train­ing to address what the effect of cog­ni­tive con­trol train­ing is on var­i­ous out­come mea­sures. And whether these effects hold up after one year fol­lowup. We looked at this in 209 chil­dren from the Greater Lon­don Area. The mean age was around nine years. And here’s the basic design, we had pre-train­ing of a par­tic­u­lar set of trans­fer domains or train­ing domains. We looked at exec­u­tive func­tions, deci­sion-mak­ing tasks, men­tal health, and aca­d­e­m­ic achieve­ment, as well as brain struc­ture and brain func­tion. Then chil­dren engaged in eight weeks of the train­ing. And we looked at whether there was any change as a func­tion of the train­ing imme­di­ate­ly after­wards. And then one year afterwards.

Dr Niko Stein­beis:
Now we all know what hap­pened a year and a half ago, less than a year and a half ago, COVID struck. So we’re a lit­tle bit flum­moxed by this, but again, because all of this was done online, we could nav­i­gate this real­ly, real­ly beau­ti­ful­ly. And that was a huge plus of hav­ing designed all of this in the way that we had with, with Caul­dron. So I’m not going to present you any of the trans­fer. What I’ll show you now is just how exact­ly chil­dren engage with the train­ing. Because this is so incred­i­bly excit­ing and encour­ag­ing for a range of dif­fer­ent rea­sons. So first I’m going to look at the actu­al amount of train­ing [inaudi­ble 00:11:03] total. There were 32 ses­sions that chil­dren could have done over the eight weeks. And what we see here, here’s the exper­i­men­tal group, here’s the con­trol group. We see real­ly nice nor­mal dis­tri­b­u­tion. And we see that over­all chil­dren par­tic­i­pat­ing around 18 train­ing sessions.

Dr Niko Stein­beis:
Each train­ing ses­sion lasts around 15 min­utes and some even made it right through up until the 32. So that it’s real­ly, real­ly nice. What’s par­tic­u­lar­ly nice is that chil­dren in both groups trained approx­i­mate­ly equal­ly. So there are no dif­fer­ences between the groups and that makes it real­ly nice because we can then gen­uine­ly com­pare any effects pre-post due to the nature of the train­ing, as opposed to the amount of train­ing that chil­dren had engaged in. Anoth­er fea­ture that we imple­ment just to engage moti­va­tion, is we had a cou­ple of bonus games after each train­ing ses­sion, chil­dren train­ing. So what we have here is the per­cent of bonus games that chil­dren engaged in. And what we see around 30% of the bonus games were actu­al­ly tak­en up on. Which is again, quite a nice fea­ture [inaudi­ble 00:12:07] where we moti­vat­ed to do more of the train­ing. Then we had actu­al­ly asked them to. And again, this is com­pa­ra­ble between the two groups.

Dr Niko Stein­beis:
Now it gets bet­ter. So we also asked chil­dren… So each week we did the train­ing at school, and at school, we gave them a lit­tle ques­tion­naire to ask them how much they enjoyed the train­ing, how much they liked it, whether they felt they’d got­ten bet­ter at what­ev­er it is that they were train­ing. So what we see here, the top score is 40. So we sum these over sev­en ques­tions. The top score is 40. And here we’ve got the means. The means are sort of rea­son­able, I think chil­dren were pret­ty engaged through­out and it was sim­i­lar for both groups. And now what’s real­ly, real­ly strik­ing is here we see the moti­va­tion change over the weeks of train­ing that hap­pened. What we actu­al­ly see is that both groups seem to increase in terms of their motivation.

Dr Niko Stein­beis:
So even though the train­ing itself was a sig­nif­i­cant por­tion of time that they did each week, but chil­dren actu­al­ly became more moti­vat­ed doing the train­ing. And that was absolute­ly incred­i­ble and real­ly, real­ly sur­pris­ing because usu­al­ly what you’d see, the more you do some­thing, unless it’s actu­al­ly incred­i­bly enjoy­able, you’ll see a drop in moti­va­tion. But we don’t see that here, we actu­al­ly see an increase in moti­va­tion. That’s real­ly, real­ly love­ly. So again, won­der­ful. And it’s com­pa­ra­ble across the two groups. And now what I’m going to show you is just the extent to which the chil­dren improved on the tasks that they actu­al­ly trained dur­ing the train­ing. So here we have the inhi­bi­tion mea­sure, and this is the group of chil­dren that did the inhi­bi­tion, and here we see the abil­i­ty to inhib­it across the dif­fer­ent sessions.

Dr Niko Stein­beis:
And what’s absolute­ly amaz­ing is that vir­tu­al­ly all chil­dren improve on the core tasks that we want­ed to train with inhi­bi­tion. And we saw exact­ly the same for our con­trol group. So the chil­dren that trained inhi­bi­tion improved on inhi­bi­tion, the chil­dren that trained on response speed, improved on response speed. So with these data, we real­ly are in the best pos­si­ble posi­tion to actu­al­ly look at our effects and our trans­fer effects as gen­uine. It does­n’t real­ly mat­ter almost at this point, whether we see any­thing or not, the train­ing itself has worked extreme­ly well in terms of engage­ment, in terms of moti­va­tion. And in terms of improving-

Jo:
Sor­ry about that. We don’t know what hap­pened for some rea­son. The ses­sion just end­ed. You had got to your slide where you were show­ing us the impact of the train­ing schools on the SSRT and in your con­trol con­di­tion. Can you go back to that slide?

Dr Niko Stein­beis:
Yeah.

Jo:
In fact, there’s a ques­tion from one of the par­tic­i­pants is did the con­trol par­tic­i­pants improve on the SSRT?

Dr Niko Stein­beis:
No, the con­trol con­di­tion their aim was to just get faster basi­cal­ly at respond­ing. So the improve­ment for the SSRT was only seen for the group that trained SSRT and the con­trol par­tic­i­pants only improved on reac­tion time. So they got faster.

Jo:
Bril­liant. Now, why don’t you con­tin­ue from where you left off?

Dr Niko Stein­beis:
Sure. I mean, it’s pret­ty much done actu­al­ly, I’m so sor­ry. So just want to con­clude, the train­ing uptake was real­ly excel­lent. Par­tic­i­pants were very moti­vat­ed, which even increased over time. Key cog­ni­tive func­tions that were meant to be trained improved. So we’re real­ly in an absolute ide­al posi­tion from which to exam­ine near and far trans­fer effect. So to ref­er­ence the Sage, games are pret­ty close to per­fect. Did you cog­ni­tive train­ing stud­ies with chil­dren. Which is absolute­ly won­der­ful. So yeah, just thank­ing the lab, the fun­ders, you for your atten­tion and obvi­ous­ly Caul­dron and for the won­der­ful, won­der­ful, extreme­ly accom­mo­dat­ing and patient col­lab­o­ra­tion. It was real­ly ter­rif­ic. And I think these results absolute­ly speak for themselves.

Jo:
Yeah. Well, you’re more than wel­come Niko, the work you and your team do is real­ly extra­or­di­nary. Now I was say­ing this before you joined in, so many researchers have been try­ing to mea­sure trans­fer effects in the lab and have failed to do this for years and years and years. And you have suc­ceed­ed, or at least we’ve got the begin­nings of a glimpse that you are suc­ceed­ing. What impact do you think that’s going to have on your area of research and relat­ed areas of research? What does this open up as for possibilities?

Dr Niko Stein­beis:
I mean, I guess the jury is poten­tial­ly still a lit­tle bit out on whether we actu­al­ly have trans­fer effects. I think we’re in the best pos­si­ble posi­tion to real­ly exam­ine whether we do. And I think the amount of data that we have col­lect­ed gives us a huge amount of lever­age in terms of being able to under­stand why the train­ing would be effec­tive. Because we record­ed every sin­gle ses­sion of a par­tic­i­pant. We can look at the wax­ing and wan­ing across ses­sions. We can look at the fluc­tu­a­tions and that gives an enor­mous scope to real­ly explore what it is that poten­tial­ly leads to and explain trans­fer effects.

Dr Niko Stein­beis:
So, I mean, I think if we do end up demon­strat­ing that this is pos­si­ble, I think that’d be just huge­ly excit­ing because on the one hand show­ing that chil­dren are very moti­vat­ed to do this. I think there would be a lot of scope to try and col­lab­o­rate with schools in terms of imple­ment­ing this more in the cur­ricu­lum. Both on the one hand, look­ing at pos­i­tive effects on men­tal health, but also look­ing at attain­ment. But also look­ing at social abil­i­ties and qual­i­ty of social rela­tion­ships. I think these are aspects that mat­ter mas­sive­ly to child devel­op­ment. And I think if we do real­ly gen­uine­ly show some trans­fer effects, then the poten­tial for the appli­ca­tion is absolute­ly enor­mous, absolute­ly enor­mous. Yeah.

 

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Using gam­i­fied train­ing to improve cog­ni­tive control