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A Gaming App That Measures Memory, Impulsiveness, And What Makes Us Happy

The Great Brain Experiment might seem like a goofy iPhone game, but it’s actually enlisting you to help expand our understanding of how the human brain works.

Citizen science can be quite dull for citizens. The professionals get the amateurs to do the grunt work, because they don’t mind, they want to be involved, and the professionals have higher grade things to do. But with The Great Brain Experiment that’s not really so. The task is fun, because it’s a game you might play anyway. And the aim is not to get people to do stuff, but to study them.

Developed by neuroscientists in the U.K., the game is a series of mind exercises: a memory challenge; a test to see "how fast you are at stopping an urge to perform an action"; another to see "how quickly your brain can make sense of what it sees" (in my case—not very); and one to see how willing we are take risks, and how to view rewards. The goal is to get a wide snapshot of how people’s brains work, and how that varies with age, gender, and educational background (information you enter before starting).

"This is the way neuroscience is going at the moment," says Harriet Brown, a PhD student at University College London’s Centre for Neuroimaging. "We’re not happy looking at just 20 people in a lab. We want to look at 30,000 people and see how they vary. This is a way of reaching a lot of people easily."

"Normally people have to come to the lab, so we can only get people who are in London and interested in doing experiments. That’s normally psychology undergraduates and it’s quite homogenous."

Since it was launched a month ago, more than 20,000 have played at least one of the games, and it’s already providing insights. For example, the impulsiveness test gets you to smash fruit as it falls from two sides of a tree. It’s tempting to smash as much as possible, but the game throws in a monkey-wrench. Some of the apples are rotten and you’re told not to touch them. The game is testing how ready we are to stop doing something we want to do.

"This is quite an important idea," says Brown, "because people with certain brain conditions like ADHD, or gambling, or alcohol addiction are very impulsive. If we study impulsiveness in normal people, we see how people become addicted to things, and whether, for example, you get more or less impulsive as you get older."

Another game flashes a series of images (trees, animals, and so on), and asks you to identify the second example of that type. Strangely, some people find this very difficult, and the experiment should help the researchers understand whether we fit into two categories (can/can’t), or if we’re more of a scale. From playing the game, I think it might be the former: I was in the hopeless category.