- The Washington Times - Wednesday, June 25, 2008

Self-confidence in the dumps? Stressed to the bone? A solution might just be a few clicks away. Or so claim the developers of MindHabits Trainer, a mental well-being computer game that trains the brain to think - automatically, with no meditation or medication needed - positive thoughts.

“When we think of self-confidence and stress reduction, we think of deliberate thoughts. But research shows that a lot of what goes on is automatic thought,” says Mark Baldwin, a psychologist who helped develop MindHabits (www.mind habits.com), which aims to reduce stress by repeating positive messages and words.

“And what determines the nature of automatic thought is practice,” says Mr. Baldwin, a social psychology professor at McGill University in Montreal.

In other words, the old adage “Practice makes perfect” holds true for achieving mental well-being as much as it does for reaching athletic or academic goals.

MindHabits offers four games aimed at reducing stress and boosting self-confidence, all accompanied by upbeat electronic music. One of the games - the matrix - shows frowning faces interspersed with far fewer smiling faces dancing across the screen. The player quickly has to find and click on the smiling faces to get points. The idea is to be able to disengage from thoughts about social threat - the frowning faces - and focus on the positive - the smiling faces.

“Social connections are a profound part of our emotional life,” Mr. Baldwin says. “What we’re doing in this game is blocking the opposite - the feelings of rejection or criticism - which are key triggers of stress.”

According to Mr. Baldwin’s research, the matrix helped reduce cortisol (stress hormone) levels by 17 percent in people who played the game five minutes a day. Findings were published in the October 2007 issue of the American Psychology Association’s Journal of Personality and Social Psychology.

Evelyn Fine, a car saleswoman in Greenville, Ky., says she can attest firsthand to the benefits of MindHabits.

“I noticed a change in attitude within the first week of playing it. It teaches your mind to automatically focus on the positive,” says Ms. Fine, who has been playing the game up to 15 minutes a day for the past six weeks.

“It is deceptively simple but still has a positive effect,” offers Sherri Ekers of Evanston, Ill., who works for a credit card company.

Both women heard about the game on a local National Public Radio station.

Psychiatrist Jerald Block is more skeptical.

“We’re very far from being able to make any clear recommendations about whether these games are helpful or not,” says Dr. Block, a professor at Oregon Health & Science University in Portland.

In general, Dr. Block says, the interactive computer world is a “mixed bag” for peoples’ mental well-being. If it isolates players further from real relationships, it is likely do more harm that good. If it helps bring them closer to real relationships - such as chatting or sending e-mails to friends and family - it is beneficial.

“I think it’s important to ask, what activity are you taking away?” Dr. Block says. “Maybe they would be doing something with the five to fifteen minutes a day that would make them even more enlivened?”

More large-scale studies are needed to make a determination about the efficacy of these types of games, he says, adding, though, that MindHabits is “an early version of much more to come” as Americans increasingly look at the virtual world to do everything from entertaining to treating the mind.

Personally, Dr. Block says, he found the game at times “engaging” and at times “frustrating.”

Mr. Baldwin, who continues his interdisciplinary computer games and social psychology teaching and study, acknowledges that more research is needed but says he sees a lot of potential for MindHabits-like games.

“I think we have hit on a couple of things that are encouraging,” he says. “We’ve shown that [the game] can benefit some people.”

Ms. Fine says she is one of those people.

“I don’t obsess as much anymore. I don’t wake up at 2 a.m. panicking because I forgot to do something,” she says, adding that playing the game also has boosted her work productivity.

“I’ve even seen my sales increasing in the last month,” she says. “I really like it.”

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