Thursday, December 27, 2012

Can playing a game change your life?

Everyone knows that playing "brain games" can help keep your memory and brain functioning sharp as you age, but can playing a game prevent, stop and reverse dementia? Surprisingly, research has discovered that one game can. Even more surprising, it is not a computer game or tech-based game, but the oldest board game known to man -  the game of GO.

What is it?

The game originated in China over 4,000 years ago. It spread through Asia and became known a Weiqi in China, Baduk in Korea and GO in Japan. It is deceptively simple. The board is a 19x19 grid and players alternate placing black and white stones on the intersections of the grid to both capture each other's pieces and gain control of the territory.  The rules are so easy that children as young as 4 can master the game play. However, it can take a lifetime to even come close to exploring all the possibilities within the game. Unlike chess, the possible moves and tactics are not limited and predictable. Every game is different.

What Science Found

Hiromi Masunaga and John Horn (Expertise and Age Related Changes, Psychology and Aging, Vol 16(2), Jun 2001, 293-311) found that the study and practice of GO significantly reduced certain mental function declines associated with aging. These common declines include the loss/decline of fluid reasoning (the ability to understand something without specific examples), short term memory, deductive reasoning The ability to understand something through specific examples), working memory and cognitive speed. GO has also been found to increase right brain processing and at the same time it requires the player to use the left side of the brain. Players learn to think both logically and creatively (left and right brain) at once. In patients that were already experiencing symptoms of dementia, their mental functioning began to increase and return in measurable degrees across all areas of cognition after six months of regular play and study of the game.

All About Balance

The unique balance of GO in emphasizing logic/tactics with creativity and judgment allows both the right and left sides of the brain to be simultaneously engaged while playing. Other "mental" games, such as chess, only engage the left side - which uses more logic and calculation. GO's history places an emphasis on the duality of consciousness in play. In GO, the board is considered a reflection of the universe, with the stones as the sun, the moon and the stars, while the play of the game represented the rhythmic changes of the seasons. The game is also seen as a means of examining the balances and imbalances of energy, life and the self.

Playing GO is viewed as a virtue and a reflection on the greater powers of the universe. For Buddhists, it is considered the only chance that a person as to break through the "27 veils of ignorance" and discover Truth. For players, GO is a form of art and contemplation.

All the Elements Together

All of these elements of the game come together and activate the whole brain, for people with dementia, this increases their ability to train parts of their brain that are not impaired to compensate for areas that are. For players who have no cognitive impairment, it is thought that this engagement (in some way) creates a resistance to the declines associated with dementia. More clinical studies are being done to try and understand the impact of the game. Not only is it commonly taught in schools in Asia but it is also becoming part of the curriculum in Europe and the US. Children who play GO are academically more successful, less prone to childhood depressions, able to manage ADD/ADHD better and - more resistant to bullying (Brown et al, IBOC, Myong-Ji University. 2010).

How to Learn

You can begin to learn GO by doing a search online for any of the free sites that teach the game. One of the best is a free site called At the bottom of the landing page there are options to see the site in a variety of languages. You can also contact the American GO Association for more information, free lessons and to find out where your local GO club is. The English explanations of GO can become overly complicated, at its heart - the game is so simple a 4 year old can learn it. Having a GO teacher that can explain it well will make learning fun and fast. But the best way of learning is to master a few simple rules and teach them to someone else. For seniors, teaching the game to their children and grandchildren can help define their time together, infuse visits with the wonder of the new and give each a way to connect across generations.

In Providence, Rhode Island you have an easy way to get started - we play GO everyday as part of the Zen Studies Program and offer a special time during the week for open play,  private instruction and children's classes. Come join as a member and play everyday to get the full benefits of the game.

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