Inside Pulse 12

Review: MindHabits (PC/MAC)

MindHabits
Developer: MindHabits Inc.
Publisher: Got Game Entertainment
Genre: Brain Training
Release Date: 08/12/2008


I sat on this review for a while because MindHabits is not so much a video game as it is Prozac, administered via PC.

This led me into a sociological conundrum. Should I play through the “game” once and then determine my review based on the lone play? Or should I do as the “game” suggests and do daily training for a period of time to determine if this game actually has any positive effects, or if it’s just a bunch of subliminal brainwashing?

I opted for the latter, and I came to quite a few conclusions about MindHabits. Before I lay them all out, I’d better give you the MindHabits word of warning, or as it were, the Alix General’s Warning.

An important note before we go on: MindHabits games are designed to be fun games based on serious science and are purely for entertainment value. They are not intended to be diagnostic tools or to function as a psychotherapist or psychiatrist! We hope that some of the ideas explored here and the trainers and trackers themselves will be entertaining, interesting, and useful to you. If you find anything about these games unpleasant or distressing, you should simply quit using them. If you become interested enough that you would like to consult with a psychologist or other mental health professional, you can ask your doctor for a referral or contact your local association of psychologists, usually listed in your telephone directory.“

A visit to the Mindhabits website led me to such gems as this:

ANTI-STRESS VIDEO GAME TURNS FROWNS UPSIDE DOWN
MONTREAL “” A video game designed to help your patients cope with anxiety has the added bonus of reducing levels of the stress hormone cortisol by 17%, according to a study in October’s Journal of Personality and Social Psychology… The researchers tried their game out on a group of telemarketers. After playing the game, the call centre staffers experienced higher self-esteem, lower cortisol and improved work performance. With its stress-reduction benefit established, the study authors expect it will help treat some forms of social anxiety, like fear of public speaking or meeting new people, and even help athletes cope with performance anxiety.

And this:

Fewer Strokes For Focused Folks
… “Many kinds of performance – whether intellectual, creative or athletic – can be undermined by distracting thoughts about potential social evaluation and criticism,” said Dr. Mark Baldwin, whose team created the video game that has since been marketed by his spin-off company, MindHabits. “Among golfers, for example, it is understood that when you hit a bad shot, you have to ‘shrug it off’ and shift your focus to the next shot. You can’t get caught up in self-criticism and in worries about what other people might think.”

Unfortunately, Baldwin said, this kind of negative thought can occur automatically, and so can be difficult to control. He and his team theorized that a specially designed video game could help players develop new habits of positive thought. They tested this theory in a study conducted last year in which telemarketers played the game before beginning a shift. Compared with a control group, those who played the game – which involves locating a smiling face among a grid of 15 frowning faces – had 17 per cent lower levels of the stress-related hormone cortisol.

The idea behind Dr. Baldwin’s research is that the mind can be trained to focus less on negative feedback in social situations and, in effect, “accentuate the positive.”…

Wow. So while I’ve overwhelmed you with quotations and articles, I certainly haven’t explained how you “play” MindHabits yet.

It’s pretty basic; you start by creating a profile, with your first and last names, any nicknames you go by, your favorite color, the year and month you were born, and where you were born. These personal gems will be used in multiple activities for various reasons.

Then, your assistant (a little cartoon lady on the left side of the screen) will prompt you to do your Daily Trackers so that they can determine your outlook for the day. Don’t let me forget the wonderful thing that is the “Thought of The Day”, which hangs out on the top of the right side of the screen. It’s there to make you feel warm and fuzzy and optimistic.

Thought of the Day: Don’t think of all the misery, but of all the beauty that still remains. In spite of everything, I still believe that people are really good at heart. – Anne Frank

On to the trackers! There are five activities that you must complete before your daily outlook can be determined. Warning! Only do this if you want to find out how positive you are feeling on any given day. Sometimes, it might be more beneficial NOT to know, if you know what I mean.

The Focus Tracker measures where your attention is drawn. Your job is to watch the middle of the screen while two faces are flashed before your eyes. Then, an “up” or “down” arrow appears to replace one of the faces, your job is to press the corresponding up or down key on your keyboard as quickly as possible.

Science Lab Says: This tracker is based on the finding that the mind works amazingly quickly to filter out some kinds of information and pay attention to other kinds of information. While this can be very helpful sometimes, at other times our filter may end up focusing us too much on one thing, such as the possibility of social threats in our environment.

The idea of the focus tracker is to measure how strongly your attention is drawn to social threats, such as frowning faces. The speed with which you are able to identify arrow probes that replace a frown (compared to a neutral face) indicate the degree to which your attention was automatically drawn toward the frown during the split second that the pictures were displayed.

The focus tracker measures your reaction times to probes replacing smiles, frowns, and neutral faces, across many trials, and then calculates a final score that can be factored into your overall Outlook score.

Alix says: The faces flash by so quickly that it is impossible for me to tell if I’m reacting positively or negatively at all. I mean, rationally, I’m ignoring the faces anyways, because all I’m waiting to see is the arrow that leads me to press the corresponding “up” or “down” key on my keyboard. I have no idea what the faces are there for, really. Why not flash puppies and kittens instead? Or different kinds of fish? I just don’t get the correlation at all.

Thought of the day: If you hear a voice within you say, “You cannot paint,” then by all means paint, and that voice will be silenced. – Vincent Van Gogh

The Look Tracker measures how distracted you are by negative images. You are shown faces displayed with a tint of blue, red, green, or yellow. You are supposed to ignore the faces themselves and identify the color of the tint as quickly as possible, using keys 1, 2, 3, and 4 on your keyboard.

Science Lab says: The Look Tracker is a pictorial version of the Stroop tracker (explained later). In Look, some of the faces are smiling, some are frowning, some are neutral. This task compares the time it takes you to name the tint color of the frowning faces to the time it takes you for smiling or neutral faces, and assesses how much your attention is distracted when the face is scowling at you.

This is one measure of your Outlook. How easily can you ignore or disengage from social threat when it is not relevant to what you are trying to do?

Alix says: Well, they keep putting so much presence on the faces, but still, I find myself not paying attention to them. Seriously, they ask you to choose the color, why on earth would I have to look at the face to figure out that it’s green? This is ridiculous.

Thought of the Day: Too many people overvalue what they are not and undervalue what they are. – Malcolm S. Forbes

The Stroop Tracker is similar to the Look tracker as it measures a different way you can be distracted by negative thoughts. Here a series of words are displayed in different colors and it is your job to point out the color of the word as quickly as possible using keys 1, 2, 3, and 4.

Science Lab says: The Stroop test has long been used in psychological research to measure people’s ability to ignore one task while performing another. In this case, ignoring the meaning of the words while indicating the color in which they are displayed.

Research has shown that when a word is relevant to the concern of a player, this distracts them and slows them down (very slightly) in their color-naming response. In our version of the classic Stroop test, some words are related to social rejection and some to acceptance. The Stroop test tracker measures the degree to which you are slowed down in your color naming by words related to rejection (compared to acceptance words or neutral words) to calculate a score that indicates how much you are being distracted by these words.

Some research with this kind of Stroop test has shown that when people are feeling secure and in a positive mood, they are less distracted by negative words such as those relating to social rejection and failure.

Alix says: Really? Come on. This activity asks you to identify the color of something. It doesn’t tell you to read the word, and then identify the color of it. I’ve completed this tracker over twelve times, and I couldn’t tell you what any of the words they used were. Isn’t the point of the test to identify COLOR?

Thought of the Day: Striving for Excellence motivates you; striving for perfection is demoralizing. – Harriet Braiker

The Blink Tracker measures your subconscious reaction to frowning faces. There is a rapid succession of face images flipping across the screen and your job is to determine if there was a smiling face in the group of images. If there was you push 1 for yes 2 for no and 3 for maybe.

Science Lab says: The Blink Tracker is an indirect measure of how much you are distracted by social threat. On some of the trials there is a smiling face presented but right before it is a frowning face shown. The tracker records whether this frowning face distracts you so that you do not notice the smiling face.

This tracker is based on the remarkable degree to which our attention can be captured by some types of stimuli so that we may not even notice other stimuli in the environment.

If your Outlook is strongly oriented toward social threats, these may capture your attention so much that you will not notice opportunities for friendliness and pleasant interactions.

Alix says: This test is difficult. There is a very rapid succession of faces shown in a split second. It’s hard to determine anything from any of them. There are some faces that look negative, but it’s just because they have messed up teeth, and they really are smiling. There are others that are neutral, but look positive. It’s tricky to determine which is which. It would be interesting to know exactly how the measurements are made and what the results would be in regards to this tracker alone. Unfortunately, that is not a feature of this game.

Thought of the Day: A smile is often the most essential thing. One is repaid by a smile. One is rewarded by a smile. One is animated by a smile. – Antoine de Saint-Exupry

With the Self Report Tracker you respond to a series of statements and questions about stress and self-confidence. Think about each statement, and then respond using the numbers 1 through 5. 5 meaning agree fully, 1 meaning I don’t agree.

Some questions you may find here are:
“¢ I can find satisfaction in my life
“¢ Over the past day I have felt overwhelmed by my responsibilities
“¢ Other people are generally selfish
“¢ Over the past day I have felt in control of my emotions
“¢ I often feel hopeless
“¢ When I walk into a crowded room I tend to notice people who look like they don’t like me
“¢ I have been feeling self-confident
“¢ I tend to think positively about myself
“¢ I feel rejected by others

Science Lab says: The questions in this report measure your subjective state of mind. Are you feeling self-confident today? Stressed? Relaxed? Your answers to these questions are then compiled and factored into your overall Outlook score.

Stress, self-confidence, and other aspects of social intelligence function at both conscious and unconscious (or automatic) levels. Self-report questions allow you to reflect on your feelings and thought patterns, to come to your own sense of your conscious Outlook for a given day.

Alix says: This one makes sense. Ask a question, get an answer. This is the most obvious of all trackers and, not surprisingly, the one that makes the most sense to me. After you complete this last tracker you are given your outlook score for the day. The higher your number, the more positive and optimistic your outlook is.

The first time I completed the trackers I was given a 5, I’m sure it had something to do with the fact that I kept thinking to myself “do they really think I’m that dumb?” or “Can they really trick people with this?” Apparently, I react a bit negatively to what feels to me to be subliminal psychotherapy.

As the days went by I traveled up to a 7.5 and finally to an oh-so-fabulous 8.7. Yay for me! I am one seriously positive girl.

Time to discuss Game Options from the main menu screen.
“¢ Language. Choose between English and French
“¢ Music Volume. Up or down, either way it’s not too exciting, it’s the same three lines of notes over and over and over and over
“¢ Sound Effect Volume. Again Up or down, there are few sound effects usually helpful upbeat notes for when you do something right or click on something related to you.
“¢ Gender Mix. Now this is a little interesting. Since the majority of the activities require you to look at pictures of strangers, you have the ability to arrange the sliding scale to more women or more men.
“¢ Age Ranges. You can use the sliding scale to determine if you’d like your population to be closer to the pacifier or the rocking chair.
“¢ Setting the neighborhood. You’ve already determined the age and sex mix of your neighborhood, now you get to use a sliding scale to determine the ethnicity of your neighborhood. You can choose to have a large cultural mix, small cultural mix, a mix of primarily Asians, a mix of primarily African Americans, or a mix of primarily white/Hispanic people. I’m really not going to comment on this as I don’t really think I have any appropriate comments for this section.

There are four types of trainers you can choose from the main menu. Apparently, training on these activities for only 5 minutes a day can help improve your outlook on life and make you think more positively. So, of course I had to play them all, at varying levels.

Matrix games focus on “inhibition.” During this game faces are displayed on the screen. Some are smiling, but most of them are neutral or frowning. The objective is to find and click on the warm and friendly faces and avoid the non-friendly ones. Apparently, as you train yourself to look for smiling faces, your brain begins to “inhibit” focusing on the frowning faces. You get points for all the smiling faces you click on, and once you hit a run you star getting double points, but if you happen to click on a negative face, your points drop. As you go up in levels the faces start moving faster and faster and it becomes more difficult to even connect with the faces before they flash away.

Who are You games use the psychological principle known as “association.” In these games panels are flipped that display words. Some of the words are your personal words from your profile, most are not. It is your job to find and click on the words that are related to you. When you click on them you are rewarded with a brief picture of a smiling figure. As you find the things that are personal to you your mind automatically triggers a “self-reference” association. This combination of self-reference followed by positive feedback is designed to automatically create positive feelings or thoughts when you think of yourself.

Why on earth wouldn’t you feel good about thinking about yourself?

Word games focus on the psychological principle called “activation.” Research shows that by putting words such as warmth or loved in our minds creates short-term positive effects on our moods and feelings. This game is like a word search. The activation words are hidden in a grid of letters and your job is to find them. There is a list of these words under the grid. In later levels your personal words start to appear and you gain a 5 second bonus for finding them. Find as many words as possible in the shortest amount of time to advance to higher levels. Activation Words to look for: helpful, love, loving, loved, cherish, cherished, wanted, prize, prized, liked, warmth, accepted, friend, embraced, generous, included, valued, kindness, regarded, affection, accepted. I’m sure there are quite a few others that I missed, but I have to leave a few surprises for you, don’t I?

So, now we come to the Grow your Chi portion of the “game.” This activity combines all three psychological triggers: “inhibition,” “association,” and “activation.” Your job is to score as high as you possibly can by clicking on the smiling faces as they float by on clouds. Do not click on the frowns or your little Chi pet in the left corner loses some fur. As you increase in levels your personal words will float by in balloons or airplanes. Click on your personal words to give your Chi pet a thicker, warmer coat. Clicking on words not related to you result in a thinner coat.

I found this one to be damned near impossible. The clouds and balloons are floating rather quickly across the screen, sometimes overlapping each other, and the clicks of the mouse are registered after a slight delay, so I would end up clicking on something I didn’t mean to, or there would be nothing there when the computer finally registered my clicks.

I failed to see the point of this activity.

The Scores:
MODES: Great
GRAPHICS: Above Average
SOUND: Pretty Poor
GAMEPLAY: Good
REPLAYABILITY: Great
BALANCE: Amazing
ORIGINALITY: Classic
ADDICTIVENESS: Above Average
APPEAL FACTOR: Classic
MISCELLANEOUS: Good
FINAL SCORE: ENJOYABLE

Short Attention Span Summary

MindHabits was designed as a tool to help people alter their general outlook on life and make them feel more positively about themselves. In the angst filled world we live in, I can imagine millions of people willing to stop buying self-help books to focus their energy on this game. No, it’s not a therapist, and it isn’t intended to be. It’s simply a tool that can be used daily to gradually adjust the way you think or feel, depending on your initial attitude towards playing it. Anyone can approach this with a bad attitude, try it once and say it’s totally pointless and useless. I feel that if a person were to approach this method with an open mind, and do the daily training, that perhaps in time they may start to feel better about themselves and their lives. There are many methods of therapy designed around repetitive behavioral training. I feel this is just another one of those. Nothing is guaranteed, but it’s worth a shot to all the insecure people dealing with negative self-image issues.