Multitasking happens all the time, whether it is at home, school or work. It is never easy to do several things at once and this doesn’t get easier as we get older. Are there any ways to overcome such difficulties? Training the brain may be one. Playing a video game that train cognitive control seems to reverse the effects of age on multitasking.
A recent study showed that adults aged 60+ who played a custom-designed video game for 12 hours over a month saw their multitasking performance increase to a level higher than the one reached by 20-years-old playing the game for the first time.
In this video game, Neuroracer, players race a car along a winding road. In the multitasking version of the game, road signs appear at the top of the screen as well. Players have to keep an eye on the signs and press a button whenever they notice a specific target sign.
Performing both tasks at the same time (driving and responding to the sign) reduces performance in sign detection, which shows the cost of multitasking. This cost increases dramatically with age: from around -25% for 20-year-olds to -40% for 30-year-old and -65% for 70-year-olds. Playing the video game an hour three times a week over a month had a drastic effect on multitasking costs for adults over 60: it went from -65% to -16%. This benefit was still present 6 months later.
Importantly, training benefits were also observed in tasks that were not included in the video game. Trained individuals showed improvement in independent tests of attention and working memory.
Using electroencephalography or EEG, the researchers found a possible neural explanation for the benefits. They measured brain waves across the prefrontal cortex, waves that are usually associated with cognitive control. The wave pattern changed as the older individuals were trained with the video game, to the point that at the end of the training their neural pattern resembled the one observed in much younger brains. For the researchers, this was evidence that the training had improved the players’ ability to stay in an engaged state for a longer period of time, allowing them to better control their attentional focus and thus better multitask.
This confirms that the brain of older adults is plastic and can be changed through experience. It also shows that video games are not necessarily bad. A custom-designed game can be used to train specific abilities, even beyond the game.
References: Anguera, J. A., et a;. (2013). Video game training enhances cognitive control in older adults. Nature, 501, 97-101.