UW-Madison researchers use video game to teach kids mindfulness

January 14, 2020   |   By Tajma Hall, Ch. 15 NBC-WMTV


Researchers at UW-Madison are helping kids get an early start on mindfulness training.

UW-Madison’s Center for Healthy Minds partnered with the University of California to create a video game that teaches middle schoolers mindfulness and breathing awareness.

The game is called Tenacity and it was created for research purposes only. The game requires players to count their breaths by tapping a touch screen to advance. It leads players through relaxing landscapes such as ancient Greek ruins and outer space.

Players tap once per breath and count breaths for the first four breaths and tap twice every fifth breath. Players earn more points and advance in the game by counting sequences of five breaths accurately.

In the study, 95 children where split into two groups. One group played Tenacity and the other played a different game that does not teach breathing. “What we found is that after just two weeks of game playing, there were changes in the kids’ brains and those changes in the brain predicted the extent at which kids perform more accurately to certain objective measures of attention,” said Richard Davidson, Founder and Director at UW-Madison’s Healthy Minds.

Davidson says this kind of research is important because mindfulness training can help kids learn how to control their attention which impacts the way they learn in school and other important settings. “We are living in world which is very different than the world pre-smart phone and that has produced some obvious benefits and it’s also produced some side effects which we are only beginning to learn about,” said Davidson.

Alena Patsenka, Scientist at the Center for Healthy Minds says because they are so popular among kids, video games can be a great tool to introduce adolescents to mindfulness practices. She says this study proves that. “We know that distraction and attention problems are on the rise. We know that loneliness is on the rise despite that fact that we are all more digitally interconnected,” said Davidson. He believes mindfulness training would help kids if it were part of their education curriculum as it greatly improves attention.

While Tenacity was only created for research purposes, the Center for Healthy Minds has a collection of resources on well-being in children and youth. They also have an app for adults called the Healthy Minds Program that anyone can download.