Puzzle Games Can Improve Mental Flexibility

Want to improve your mental finesse? Playing a puzzle game like Cut the Rope could just be the thing you need. 

A recent study by Nanyang Technological University (NTU) scientists showed that adults who played the physics-based puzzle video game Cut the Rope regularly, for as little as an hour a day, had improved executive functions. Executive function is important for making decisions in everyday life when you have to deal with sudden changes in your environment -- better known as thinking on your feet. 

Assistant Professor Michael D. Patterson and PhD student Adam Oei tested four different games for the mobile platform, as their previous research had shown that different games trained different skills. The games varied in their genres, which included a first person shooter (Modern Combat); arcade (Fruit Ninja); real-time strategy (StarFront Collision); and a complex puzzle (Cut the Rope). NTU undergraduates, who were non-gamers, were then selected to play an hour a day, 5 days a week on their iPhone or iPod Touch. This video game training lasted for 4 weeks, a total of 20 hours. 

Significant Improvement in Executive Function

Students who played Cut the Rope showed significant improvement on executive function tasks while no significant improvements were observed in those playing the other three games. "This finding is important because previously, no video games have demonstrated this type of broad improvement to executive functions, which are important for general intelligence, dealing with new situations and managing multitasking," said Patterson, an expert in the psychology of video games.

"This indicates that while some games may help to improve mental abilities, not all games give you the same effect. To improve the specific ability you are looking for, you need to play the right game," added Oei. The abilities tested in this study included how fast the players can switch tasks (an indicator of mental flexibility); how fast can the players adapt to a new situation instead of relying on the same strategy (the ability to inhibit prepotent or predominant responses); and how well they can focus on information while blocking out distractors or inappropriate responses (also known as the Flanker task in cognitive psychology).

Unique Puzzle Design

Patterson said the reason Cut the Rope improved executive function in their players was likely due to the game's unique puzzle design. Strategies which worked for earlier levels would not work in later levels, and regularly forced the players to think creatively and try alternate solutions. This is unlike most other video games which keep the same general mechanics and goals, and just speed up or increase the number of items to remember.

After 20 hours of game play, Cut the Rope players could switch between tasks 33% faster, were 30% faster in adapting to new situations, and 60% better in blocking out distractions and focusing on the tasks at hand than before training. All three tests were done one week after the students had finished playing their assigned game, to ensure that these were not temporary gains due to motivation or arousal effects. The study will be published in the academic journal, Computers in Human Behavior. This is the first study to show broad transfer to several different executive functions, further providing evidence the video games can be effective in training human cognition.

"This result could have implications in many areas such as educational, occupational and rehabilitative settings," Patterson said. "In the future, with more studies, we will be able to know what type of games improves specific abilities, and prescribe games that will benefit people aside from just being entertainment."

StepUp Note

Research shows that executive functions in our brains are important for helping us managing multi-tasking (reducing distractions) and for dealing with new situations (prioritizing the most important actions we need to take). This research showed that a group of university students measurably improved in tests of executive function after playing a video strategy game (Cut the Rope) for 4 weeks. The changes they measured included flexibility (changing to a new task); adaptability (ignoring distractions); and focus (paying attention to important information). 

StepUp includes exercises that require these same key executive functions: focusing on speed and accuracy of responses; shifting to new academic tasks (math and verbal skills); and shifting to new movement patterns. In general, practice with problem-solving skills in everyday living can helps children develop executive function skills: improve sustained effort (attention), focus (awareness of important information), and flexibility (shifting from one task to the other). StepUp's cloud-based programs enrich any PreK - Grade 2 curriculum. Try it free for 30 days!

Note by Nancy W Rowe, M.S., CCC/A

Reposted from Nanyang Technological University