Can you tell happy faces from sad? In the latest activity from All of Us, you can test your ability to tell different emotions apart. And do it for science.
All of Us invites participants to take surveys, donate blood samples, and share their health records. Now the program is inviting participants to do something different. We have added four new online games that challenge you. And more than that.
Your reactions to these puzzles and scenarios require different responses from your brain. Researchers can study your responses to learn more about how the brain works. The results can give researchers insights into how we think, and how thinking affects our behavior.
The set of four new activities is called Exploring the Mind. All of Us worked with the National Institute of Mental Health (NIMH) and the non-profit organization The Many Brains Project for several years to develop them.
“The Exploring the Mind activities tap into different psychological processes that, when taken together, help paint a more complete picture of the patterns of behavior seen in mental health and illness,” said Jenni Pacheco, Ph.D., a scientific program manager in the NIMH Research Domain Criteria Unit.
Your own score on any one task might not tell you much about your brain or your behavior. But when a lot of people perform the task, the results might reflect patterns that give researchers insights.
“This will be among the largest sets of data that links behavior with medical and genetic data,” said Amy Price, Ph.D., a health scientist at All of Us. “These data will help researchers understand how our genes, our medical history, and our environment connect to how we perceive and think about the world.”
The four games are called Guess the Emotion, Left or Right, City or Mountain, and Now or Later. Guess the Emotion asks you to name emotions based on facial expressions. Left or Right measures how well you can focus while distractions abound. City or Mountain tests how fast you respond — or how well you resist responding — to a changing scene. Now or Later explores how you value money now or in the future.
The new research tasks relate to everyday events. For example, Left or Right measures how well you focus. You start by looking at a screen with one arrow flanked by other arrows. The arrows might be pointing in different directions. Your job is to indicate the direction of the one in the middle.
There might be times when you say that the middle arrow is pointing left, but it's really pointing right. That happens because you're using information around the arrow to help make your decision, even though you're trying hard not to.
“A traffic light is a good example of that in real life,” said Dr. Price. “Imagine you are at an intersection waiting at a red light. A light in the nearby turn lane turns green. You briefly think it’s your turn to go but then realize that the light in front of you is still red.”
How do these tasks relate to mental health and illness? Some illnesses affect our mental abilities, and vice versa. Schizophrenia and memory loss affect how well people recognize emotions. A lower ability to focus your attention is linked to depression and obesity. (Obesity isn't a mental condition. But obesity and mental health conditions are linked.)
Researchers might also discover behaviors that can predict mental decline earlier than we can now. Often, by the time people are diagnosed with dementia or Alzheimer's, they are already dealing with later stages of these conditions.
The tasks in Exploring the Mind are examples of ones used in research on brain function. They can show how a brain works normally. And how it goes awry in disease. But just because someone doesn't perform the tasks perfectly doesn't mean they have a mental illness or other health condition. In fact, these tasks are not used in clinics to diagnose any illnesses, said Dr. Price. And All of Us is using them for research only.
The task called City or Mountain has scenes fading in and out that you have to identify. Dr. Price thinks it's the most challenging, because it requires a lot of focus and moves fast. She says people either love it or hate it.
Many factors can affect how well you do on the activities. You will likely perform differently based on the time of day, your energy level, your mood, and other factors. All of Us hopes participants will try the activities more than once and at different times. You can participate once every 30 days. Buttons on your dashboard will count down the days until you can go again. It might be fun to try the activities over and over and see how your score changes. If you keep track of your mood or what's going on around you each time, you might learn something about when you do your best.
Dr. Price and other All of Us researchers are excited about making Exploring the Mind available. The All of Us activities are based on real assessments that behavioral scientists have developed over many years. But those tasks usually have to be done in person. Volunteers for such studies have to sit down in a research lab in front of a computer.
Now, All of Us participants can do them in the comfort of their own homes. Or while visiting an All of Us partner.
All of Us is thrilled to open up the tasks to so many people from such diverse backgrounds.
“We can now provide access to people in rural areas or people who don't have easy access to research institutions. They haven’t been able to easily participate in the past,” said Dr. Price. “We want to make it easy and fun for people from many backgrounds to complete these activities.”
What might feel like a game to you will be data that researchers value highly. It's a win for everyone when helping with health research can be fun at the same time.