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Child Neuropsychology

A blog by Dr Jonathan Reed

  • Imagine being able to remember everything you have ever learnt or experienced.   Well I have just read a fascinating book Total Recall by Graham Bell of Microsoft labs which suggests that we may soon be able to do this using digital technology.  He set up a project to see whether he could digitally record everything that happened to him, in essence to create a virtual memory.

    In order to learn and remember there is the need to encode information, store and retrieve it.  We now have the technology to do all three of these cheaply and efficiently.  We presently have lots of digital recording devices including, cameras, voice recorders, word processors, emails, answering machines, scanners, PDA’s etc, that can encode information into a virtual memory.   We have very large storage capacity in the case of hard drives (you can now store vast amounts of information even on mobile devices quite cheaply) that can act as a memory store.  In terms of memory retrieval we have sophisticated search engines either on the web or built into computers to find what we need to remember.  This is the first time in history that all three components of digital memory- encoding, storage and retrieval are available in such a cheap and easy to use way.

    The implications for this are potentially huge.  In terms of personal enhancement it should be possible to have digital devices that store and retrieve everything that happens to you. No more forgetting what you have done, where you have been, facts about the world etc.   Your whole life experience could be stored on a device for future reference.  Maybe in the future when you are no longer around people will be able to review your life through such a device.  Bell documents how he records every telephone call, uses Sensecam to record all he sees, stores all his photos, scans every document and bill he receives, stores every email, stores all his medical records  and every web page he has ever seen.  Using a program he has devised he can search for any specific piece of information (memory) and retrieve it easily.  In the future it will be possible to record personal health data such as blood pressure, diet and alcohol intake and even how many steps you take on the same device and integrate it into your memory, which will make healthcare appointments much more efficient.  The book is a fascinating read and Bell believes that this is one of the key trends for the future and that we will all be able to access such technology within the next 10 years.

    As well as personal enhancement this technology has huge implications for neuropsychological rehabilitation.  One of the most devastating consequences of child brain injury is impairment of memory.  There are some techniques that we can use to help with memory retrieval (see previous post ) but these are slow and take a lot of effort to work.  It would be far easier and more efficient to use technology to compensate. It should be possible to equip children (and adults) with memory impairment with a handheld device that will enable them to recall what they have experienced and compensate for their learning and memory problems.  This would revolutionise care for individuals with amnesia and dementia.

    I would love to use this type of technology myself.  I am one of those people who wants to learn and experience everything.  I read avidly, try to keep up with the rapidly expanding neuropsychology literature and try to experience as much as possible while I can.   However the ratio of knowledge that I retain and can retrieve I think is pretty small relative to the amount of input.   At present looking at Bell’s book and the technology available, the issue is about integrating existing technology in order to create a device or program that automatically records, stores and retrieves information.  It can’t be that hard to do as much of the technology is already available.  The challenge will be creating a user friendly program or device that works seamlessly.  Ideally there would be psychology input to match the technology with human experience.   I am not aware of any company undertaking this work at present but please let me know if anyone knows whether anything like this is being created.  Maybe one day we will all be able to achieve total memory recall of everything we have ever experienced.  It could change the world as we know it.

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  • Children and adults learn and develop through play.  I am a great believer that playing computer games as well as being fun can be good for your brain.  I have therefore created a list of 10 great games that I think require very specific areas of neuropsychological function to play.  Some even have research to show that they can change brain and neuropsychological function. These games are for a range of different ages and come in different formats.  Let me know of others that could be included in the list.

    1 Portal 2 (PC/Mac) Probably one of my favourite games.  Portal 2 requires good executive function (associated with frontal areas of brain).  In particular you need to be able to problems solve and plan ahead in this game.  Also it is a beautifully designed game, showing what computer games can achieve in terms of entertainment.

    2 Call of Duty 4 (X box)- An exciting fast paced game that requires good speed of processing and visual attention.   There are a number of academic papers such as this one by Bjorn Hubert-Wallender, C. Shawn Green and Daphne Bavelier Stretching the limits of visual attention: the case of action video games that show games like these can actually improve visual attention and speed of processing.  It seems that this only applies to really fast paced games such as Call of Duty. (note Call of Duty is for age 16 and above).

    3. Tetris (ipad) A classic arcade style game that keeps you focused.  There is research by Haier et al from University of California to suggest that playing this game results in increased cortical thickness. There is also research by Emily Holmes from the University of Oxford to suggest that playing Tetris can help with symptoms of PTSD.

    4 Drop 7 (iphone).  To play this game you have to drop different balls with numerals inside into rows or columns and try and ensure that the numerals and the number of balls match i.e. every time you line five balls up the ones with the numeral 5 in them disappears.  This reinforces the neuropsychological concept of Numerosities, which is the ability to automatically recognise the number in a set.   Difficulties with this concept seem to be the underlying disability in dyscalculia ( specific deficit in maths).

    5 New Super Mario Brothers (Wii) The Wii version allows two people to play together and work in collaboration to progress through levels and therefore involves social co operation.  This would be an ideal game to play with a child with Autistic Spectrum Disorder ASD.  Playing alongside side children with ASD on a shared task  can be better than trying to directly interact with them. It is also fun to play with children and adults of all ages.

    6. Where’s Wally (ipad).  This game requires a very specific form of attention called selective attention.  This is the ability to spot a stimulus within an array of other information. This game may be helpful for children with attention difficulties.  The ipad version is particularly good with changing goals and rewards.

    7. Ball frenzy (ipad)  A good simple but addictive game requiring good visual motor co-ordination.  Similar to marbles.

    8 Bookworm (iphone).  A game requiring word finding and spelling.  This isn’t specifically designed as an educational game and is by Popcap who are great at designing addictive casual games.  It is fast moving and you are motivated by completion and reward rather than focusing on the educational side.

    9. Connect Four (ipad).  Another simple game  but requiring good executive function.  You need to resist the impulse to act immediately and plan your response.  I and colleagues have long believed that playing this game with children is a better assessment of executive function than many formal tests.

    10 Nutty Numbers (ipad)  I have including the game I have developed to help with numeracy for young children because there is research to show that it is effective in children’s development of numeracy.