(via Blue Marble's Dario Padilla) Life is challenging in this day and age, rarely affording us the luxury to focus entirely on one task at a time. Daily life often demands that we divide our attention in most practical situations: work, sports, family, school, driving, cooking, etc. Divided attention is the ability to respond to more than one task at the same time or to attend to more than one task demand at once. These tasks typically include performing a simple sorting task while also monitoring time to determine when a certain interval has elapsed. People have to multitask all the time, in fact, some of the most common tasks we do in life require divided attention.
One example of divided attention would occur when driving to work while having to speak to an employer on a cell phone. This task requires us to pay attention to what our boss is telling us they need, thinking of how to get it done, all the while navigating through your environment in your car. Another example to consider is the simple process of cooking a meal. Whether a head of household or a professional cook, ensuring all ingredients are properly added to a dish, keeping things from burning in other pots, and watching the timer and temperature are just a few aspects of successfully making a meal.
If divided attention declines (or is impaired), our ability to handle multiple tasks suffers. For a person with a brain injury, the focus required for successfully performing more than one task at a time is difficult. Imagine the trouble a mother would have if she was unable to focus on cleaning, cooking, and attending to her children all at once. In order to address some of the challenges that people with traumatic brain injuries face, Blue Marble Game Co. has created an entertaining strategic adventure video game, the “Treasure of Bell Island.” This game engages the player in compelling and cognitively challenging game-play, while tracking player performance metrics.
Within the game, there are several activities which focus on specific cognitive abilities, including divided attention. In one activity called “Shortcut,” the player (represented by the character Rusty) must create a shortcut through a cavernous tunnel as a means to continue exploring the island. Entering the tunnel at one end, Rusty must memorize a preset sequence of bells ringing and then proceed to a unlocking mechanism on the other end of the tunnel where he must ring a matching set of bells in the same sequence. To effectively navigate through the tunnel, the player is tasked with keeping their finger on the touchscreen representation of Rusty to ensure his swift progress. During the journey through the tunnel, other incidents will occur to further challenge the player’s divided attention. Once the activity is finished results can be stored, sorted, and compared with outcomes in multiple areas.
Playing the Shortcut activity offers the player the opportunity to repeatedly work on divided attention. In terms of neuroplasticity, repetition is a key means for the brain to re-grow and re-organize synaptic networks (i.e., make new connections). The more frequently a person uses a skill to approximate the successful performance of a task, the more opportunities there are for new connections to form and existing connections to strengthen.