Video games have certainly been tied to some negative consequences, including a lack of attention or concentration, an elevated risk of aggression, or even physical symptoms like headache, nausea and dizziness. However, when certain games are strategically combined with rhythm and music, they can help boost short-term memory, one study claims.
A recent study published in the journal Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences found adults with no musical training who played a digital rhythm-based video game for eight weeks were better at remembering recently seen faces.
“Older adults who have had no prior musical training are able to become more rhythmic and improve their memory for faces, so it’s an improvement of this generalized memory ability,” Theodore Zanto, PhD, lead author of the study and an associate professor of neurology in the UCSF Weill Institute for Neurosciences, told Seasons. “Musical training can improve cognitive abilities on non-musical tasks.”
Musical training can improve cognitive abilities on non-musical tasks.
Zanto and his colleagues gave participants (all between ages 60 and 70) a tablet and asked them to play an assigned game for 20 to 30 minutes a day, five days a week. Some participants were asked to play a digital rhythm training game (similar to learning how to play the drums with an instructor), while the other half played a word search game for about eight weeks.
Before and after the study, the participants took a short-term memory test to see if they could remember an unfamiliar face that popped up on the screen for a few seconds. The group who played the digital rhythm training game was the only group to show an improvement in their initial scores—around a 4% increase.
The group that played the digital rhythm-based game, “had these visual cues to let them know what rhythms they should be tapping,” he said. “As they progressed, these visual cues disappeared, and they had to play this rhythm from memory.”
He added that by doing this and taxing the memory, the participants who played the music game were able to improve core functions of memory that generalize to nonmusical tasks—in this case, memory for faces.
How is the music and rhythm game from the study different from other video games?
Zanto said the game is different from other games (like Guitar Hero, Rock Band or Dance Dance Revolution) because it puts demands on people’s short-term memory by forcing users to remember what comes next versus seeing the queues that are always there. Plus, the rhythm training game used adaptive algorithms to challenge people’s abilities.
“When you’re playing these games, if it’s too easy, it becomes boring and you’re not really going to benefit from it because you’re not challenging yourself,” he said. “Conversely, if it’s too hard, you’re going to fail at it, get frustrated and quit, which is not going to help you either.”
If you really want to improve cognitive function, Zanto explained you need to exercise your brain at “that sweet spot,” and you need to challenge yourself.
Link between digital rhythm games and short-term memory
If you do something frequently, you’ll likely get better at it over time, Zanto said. In the rhythm training game, the participants were actively engaging their memory.
Initially, the users had visual cues that told them what rhythm to tap in the game, but eventually, those cues went away. This forced them to remember the rhythmic pattern from memory and the precise timing—and not just spatial positions.
“This all relies on memory processes. There are specialized regions of the brain to encode specific sensory stimuli,” Zanto said. “But in order to encode memories, there are shared regions of the brain that are involved in attention and memory.”
He noted that attention and memory are highly correlated. If you don’t pay attention to something, you’re likely not going to remember it. By engaging attention to memory processes over and over again, it’s improving core functions shared across any type of memory.
…attention and memory are highly correlated. If you don’t pay attention to something, you’re likely not going to remember it.
Particularly, he said memory improvement is “subserved by the region of the brain known as the superior parietal lobule,” a brain region linked with encoding visual information and attention.
“This region of the brain has been involved in all sorts of different kinds of memories, not just faces, but also for colors, motion and words,” he said. “It’s involved in the memory process, encoding and bringing it into the regions that are actually storing the memory.”
Zanto said that based on the results, participants who played the digital rhythm training game had to consistently engage their memory. By doing this, it allowed them to have an improved ability to bring something back into their memory and retrieve it again when they needed it (especially when they took a test to identify unfamiliar faces at the end of the study).
Unfortunately, because the game was exclusive to this study, Zanto said it’s not a tool caregivers of older adults can access. In the meantime, he said, people can pick up an instrument and start learning how to play it.
“There are tools out there that challenge memory abilities. If you keep challenging your memory in different ways, I would be surprised if you didn’t see improvement in your memory ability,” he said.