Dr Bianca De Wit, from the Department of Cognitive Science at Macquarie University in Sydney talks gaming - of the neuro kind. Just what is this new field of neurogaming and how can it be used for learning? Can playing games make us more intelligent?

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Donna Lu: Gaming: it’s come a long way in the last 20 years. We’ve jumped from the original tabletop Atari and Pac-Man to something you can now carry around in the palm of your hand. Gaming has blossomed into one of the world most profitable industries. Now that we carry mobile computers with us wherever we go in the form of smart phones, games have never been so accessible. Growing up, many of us have been told to leave the gaming console alone and go outside and play. But could we improve our cognition, or train ourselves to be better at specific tasks by playing games? Well, what about games that could be played solely through brain power alone? No movement, no handheld controls required. It sounds futuristic, but games like this already exists. Today, we speak to Dr. Bianca de Wit from the Department of Cognitive Science and the ARC Center of Excellence of Cognition and its Disorders from Macquarie University in Sydney.  Bianca is the deputy director of the undergraduate program there, and her research focuses on visual word recognition and more recently, neuro-gaming technology and how it can be used in education. Today, she chats to us about the new and exciting field of neuro-gaming.

Dr Bianca de Wit: Yeah, interesting for me, too. Not a gamer at all, so it’d very fun to be introduced to this type of technology. I think it’s opening up so many different doors not just in the gaming world, but just in the science world as well.

Donna Lu: So, my understanding of neuro-gaming is that people can interact with each other within the game without traditional controllers while they’re looking at a screen.

Dr Bianca de Wit: Yeah, that’s right. So, no more hands needed. Pretty much what happens is you measure your brain activity through electrodes that are on your head and you train the headset up in such a way that it uses your brain activity to actually play the game. So, a really good example is the game ‘Angry Birds’ for example. There are people out there that have trained a headset up in such a way that they can play ‘Angry Birds’ without ever having to touch a key or a joystick, or whatever you might use to play that game.

Donna Lu: You showed us a video and a talk you gave to some year 10 students earlier, and it was incredible to watch. Can you tell us a little about the headsets that are involved in neuro-gaming? Are they different to an ordinary EEG – an Electro Encephalograph?

Dr Bianca de Wit: There are several headsets out there. The one I’m most familiar with is called the EMOTIV Epoc+ headset. It's very different to, say, a research-grade system, like neuro-scan or Biosemi, in that we're only using fourteen electrodes and they're all hard-wired in that they're stuck on a cap and it's a plastic cap, so they're in specific locations on the head.

Donna Lu: For listeners who aren't familiar with the term EEG, can you explain how it works and what we use it for?

Dr Bianca de Wit: Yeah, absolutely. So, the brain, I guess is the brain, and as part of the brain there are working units and we call those things neurons, and neurons talk to each other using electrical signals and it's those signals that we can pick up on with EEG. So, what's involved is you actually stick a little electrode on someone's scalp in very specific positions based on the systematic international system. And those electrodes pick up on the electricity of the brain and from that we can do a lot of data processing and all of that, but we can actually visualize what's going on inside our heads.

Donna Lu: So what does your research entail, and what kinds of visual stimuli do you use?

Dr Bianca de Wit: So, what my research would involve is, I'm a visual work recognition person, so I would show words, visual words up on a screen, and people have to make a decision about them: for example, whether it's a real existing word, or something that only looks like a word but isn't really a word. What happens is that the electrons pick up on the brain activity that's going on while performing that task, but we still need to dive just a little bit deeper into that signal before we can pull anything meaningful out of it. So, we have what you'll see is something that we call an EEG signal, but what we're really interested in is what's happening in the brain in relation to some of the experiments or manipulations that we may have introduced during the task. So there's a bit more processing involved than just it popping up on the screen, but yes, essentially that's how it all starts, absolutely.

Donna Lu: So, the neuro-gaming device, the headset that you're using now – has that replaced the traditional EEG in your research?

Dr Bianca de Wit: I wouldn't say it's replaced it. I would say it's definitely a good addition. It’s definitely opening up a lot of extra doors to research. I don't think anything will ever replace a research-grade system, and even though we're getting really good results with the gaming system, it's never going to be the same as the research-grade system. But for example, as I said this morning, if we have populations like people with autism that find it scary to come into an environment that they're not used to, especially if it's full of medical equipment, we can now actually take the headsets to them and do research there. Sure, it might not be as ideal as bringing them into the lab and using research-grade equipment, but it is giving us a good idea of what is actually going on.

Donna Lu: We might pop some photos up on our website, but essentially when you look at an EEG it's kind of almost like a cloth skullcap, or like a swimming cap made out of cloth with lots and lots of different wires coming out. Can you explain to the listeners what these neuro-gaming headsets look like, and the benefits of them in terms of their portability?

Dr Bianca de Wit: Yes. So, the original system is really as you say – it’s a plastic cap, and there are little electrodes that would fit into slots on that cap, and you have to fill them up with conductive gel so that we can actually get the electricity out of the head inside the electrode.

Donna Lu: So it's a little bit sticky and messy, is it?

Dr Bianca de Wit: It is very messy, yes. It’s very finicky, and afterwards the only way to remove the gel out of your hair is to wash your hair. With these research-grade systems we don't use gel. The research-grade system, as you said, you’re connected to a computer, there’s wires involved. The gaming one is wireless. So, what happens if we have little dental rolls like those cotton rolls you get stuffed into your cheek when you go to the dentist? We cut them into pieces and we dip them into saline solution, and we put that in the electrode and against your scalp, and that's all we need.

Donna Lu: That's amazing. And you actually are from Sydney, and with recording this in Brisbane and you said you actually packed it into your carryon luggage.

Dr Bianca de Wit: I did. Yes. I was very nervous going through security. I took it to America earlier this year and I was convinced I was going to be pulled to the side, but everyone just goes, “okay, you’re just bringing your dental rolls, that’s fine.”

Donna Lu: Can you explain in terms of education and research what the goal or the overarching question is that you're trying to answer?

Dr Bianca de Wit: Oh, they’re very separate things. In my most current work, where I'm actually using this technology and education, it's really focusing on teaching neuroscience and we’re teaching kids about EEG. That's a really difficult thing to grasp, even if you've been working with this equipment or using this technique for quite a while. It's a challenging technique, and I think when students come in their first year of University, they feel overloaded. So, my goal is to actually make it easier for them to understand certain neuroscience topics, and the way to do that is to actually get them to do it. So, instead of just reading about EEG and hearing about it during your lectures, they actually come in to their normal classrooms and we bring in the headsets and the laptops, and they get to perform EEG scans on each other, visualizing their own brain activity and then analyzing it and getting an ERP wave form by the end of it. So, it's really learning by doing, and that will hopefully help them remember.

Donna Lu: And then in terms of the research side of things, can you elaborate a bit about that?

Dr Bianca de Wit: Yes. So, the goal of research really is to work out how the brain and the mind work – essentially massive question, and we're chipping away at it, bit by bit, and hopefully as I said, this gaming system can open up a few more doors and actually give us an insight into research that we could otherwise not do.

Donna Lu: In terms of the word recognition work that you're doing, what's the potential application for this work? Is it for people with dyslexia, or is it understanding how we process words and language?

Dr Bianca de Wit: A bit of both. They are always massive applications eventually. In a more direct way, it really is more about understanding how we're processing those words and how we are making those decisions. So for me, it's more about this direct level with working out what's going on in the moment, and I'm definitely using EEG more as an extra insight into some of the behavioral research I've already done.

Donna Lu: In terms of processing the data that comes out of an EEG, because you have so many electrodes and the brain is simmering with activity, how much processing do you need to do in terms of getting an understanding of what someone is thinking? Is it very specific? Or, from that electrical information, can you get a more general idea of what's going on?

Dr Bianca de Wit: It would be a bit more general. There are quite a few processing steps involved, not going to lie. There is a bit of computer work that goes on. The most essential thing that we do is we have to average across trials. So, EEG signals, even though they’re coming from the same person, they’re very variable per trial. So what we typically do in an experiment is we actually give people say, three or four hundred trials, and within those trials some of those trials would belong to one certain condition, and some of them to another. So that you actually get an of a lot of repetitions – not necessarily of, say, the same word, but definitely the same type of word, and by averaging across we get a good idea of what is going on in general. I would not say look at just, ‘oh, what happens in the brain if I show someone the word dog’, but you might be able to say, well, if someone needs to make a certain semantic categorization decision, which we have come to by averaging several animal stimuli, it will give us a clear idea.

Donna Lu: Are there potential applications in terms of improving people's attention span through neuro-gaming training?

Dr Bianca de Wit: Yeah. That's a very hot topic at the moment. I actually went to a very interesting research talk on that not that long ago, and the main conclusion with that is really that the benefit you get out of training on, say, a memory task, the transfer that you get to other tasks, we either call that a broad transfer of a very narrow transfer, and it turns out the transfer you get is actually really narrow. So, it makes sense when you think about that you're training yourself on, say, memory, of course you're going to get better at memory tasks, but you're not necessarily going to get better at spatial attention tasks, or anything like that.

Donna Lu: So, for example in terms of, say, doing Sodukos all the time, you might get really good at Sudoku, but not necessarily other processing tasks?

Dr Bianca de Wit: Research seems to suggest. There’s definitely focus on staying active and that doing things like Sudoku will definitely help you and keep your brain active. I'm not an expert in this area, so I can’t say whether they are effective or whether they're not. But, yeah, as I mentioned, the recent talk I went to was very interesting, and it seems to be more like a media hype at the moment that, ‘train your brain and you'll get better at absolutely everything!’. I don't think that we’re at that stage yet.

Donna Lu: So, is it still a little bit of a myth that needs further research then?

Dr Bianca de Wit: Further research is definitely necessary.

Donna Lu: What would you like people to know about education in neuro-gaming?

Dr Bianca de Wit: I suppose just how we can actually use it to make teaching more fun. One of the things that we've definitely noticed in our undergraduate major at Macquarie is that students are loving the interactive, hands-on research activities that they get to engage in, and I think we're giving them the opportunity, and commercial technology like the EMOTIV headset is making it possible for them to actually be active instead of just being more of a passive student that goes to university, and hopefully we can, you know, give more students that opportunity.

Donna Lu: In terms of the future of brain computer interfaces, people like to talk about the fact that machines will one day be able to read our mind. Do you think we're still a little way off from that?

Dr Bianca de Wit: I certainly hope so. I don't want anyone to be able to read my mind. Yes, I think that is still a long way away. I mean, never say never. Here we are, you know, years ago we didn't even have these neuro-gaming devices, but I think it is still very much at the stage where we're working out processes, and not actually reading someone's mind.

Donna Lu: That was Dr. Bianca de Wit talking about neuro-gaming, and that's all for this episode. I'm Donna Lu and our podcast is produced by Jessica McGaw. If you enjoyed this episode, tell your friends about it, give us a review on iTunes which helps other people find the podcast, or let us know what you think on Facebook or Twitter. Thanks for listening.

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