Our digital lives make concentration difficult. Everybody has experienced working on a task, then being interrupted by the swooshing sound of the email icon popping up, only to be side-tracked by the pinging notification of a text on our smartphones, or digital watches. By the time we return to our original project it feels as if we have to start all over, because we have lost our train of thought.

A group of Cambridge university researchers believes to have developed a “fun” solution to this modern problem. By playing a “brain training” game, called Decoder, players can increase their concentration. This success, they claim, has been backed up by scientific tests.

The inspiration behind the game for lead researcher Barbara Sahakian, professor of clinical neuropsychology at Cambridge University, came from the large number of people who come to her with difficulties concentrating.

We are “always shifting our attention between these technological things that we have in front of us” like laptops and phones, trying to complete multiple jobs at the same time, she said. “People are not working effectively because they can’t direct their attention to one big problem.”

The Decoder game asks players to detect sequences of numbers, like 2-4-6, 3-5-7, 4-6-8. Using an Indiana Jones or James Bond like theme, the game asks players to decode number sequences which direct them to clues that solve missions.

“It’s quite good fun,” according to Sahakian, who explained that players need to stay focused to spot the sequences and not think about something else or decide to check their emails. The game is also “something that can be fitted in” during a ten-minute break at work. Compared to other ways to refocus, like running, it does not require planning ahead or take up a lot of time, she explained.

The brain’s frontal parietal network, in charge of problem solving and attention, is activated during the game, she said. In the same way as exercising, doing tasks that can strengthen this part of the brain will keep it fit and enable people to do more than before, Sahakian explained. It is the “use it or lost it idea” Sahakian said. “Over time we would expect to see that frontal parietal network strengthen in the brain” and for players to be “much better at concentration” she added.

In order to test the game’s effect, the research team conducted a study published Monday in the journal Frontiers in Behavioural Neuroscience. For the study, 75 healthy participants were split into three groups: one that played Decoder, one that played no game at all and another group who played the game Bingo.

A test was given to assess attention and concentration before and after the games were played. For that test, players see numbers from two to nine in the middle of their screen, at a rate of 100 digits per minute, and have to press a button when they spot a sequence.

People who played Decoder for eight hours in one month showed significantly better attention than others who played Bingo or no game at all.

The authors say that the difference is comparable to the effects of using stimulants, such as Ritalin — a common medication prescribed as a treatment for Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD), characterized by inattentiveness, hyperactivity and impulsiveness.

There are doubters

Some scientists are doubtful of the effectiveness behind the game.

The Decoder app is “very similar” to the test used to determine it’s effectiveness said Nilli Lavie, professor of psychology and brain sciences at University College London, who was not involved in the research. What the results show, Lavie observed, is that people are “slightly better” at performing a similar task to the one they practiced in the app.

“Normally, if you do brain training and you want to show effective training, you need to show some generalization,” she said. The “critical thing is that” the test used to show brain training “needs to be different to the training in order to say that it is not a content-specific task-specific training.”

She added that “in the test there are no distractions.” This means that we can’t “tell whether people are going to be less distracted when they are doing the test or any other task following the brain training.”

In order to ensure that Decoder improved people’s concentration and attention without limiting their ability to shift attention, the team also ran a second test called the Trail Making Test. Here participants had to jump from focusing on numbers to letters and back to numbers.

The time it took participants to complete this task was significantly different between the Decoder playing group and the group who played Bingo. But not when the Decoder group was compared to the group that played no game at all.

Participants were also asked to rate their experience. Decoder was enjoyed, and motivation remained high throughout the eight hours of playing.

“We hope that the game will be beneficial for patients who have impairments in attention, including those with ADHD or traumatic brain injury. We plan to start a study with traumatic brain injury patients this year,” said Sahakian.

The research was funded by the National Institute for Health Research (NIHR) and the NIHR Cambridge Biomedical Research Centre.

After the newly published study ended though, the game was licensed through Cambridge Enterprise, which is the technology transfer arm of the University of Cambridge, to app developer Peak. Sahakian is a scientific adviser to the company.

When users first download it, their strengths and weaknesses are assessed. Afterwards, they can play Decoder in their daily workout. A version serves up the game once a day as part of a workout. Whereas a paid version allows players to access Decoder whenever they want which can be more than once a day.

Ashok Jansari, senior lecturer in cognitive neuropsychology at Goldsmiths, University of London said that the research “clearly” shows a benefit of playing Decoder on a “laboratory-based measure of sustained attention.” Jansari was not involved in the research.

But, “an important issue that needs to be addressed is how long-lasting these effects are. Does one have to keep playing Decoder to improve sustained attention and if one stops, does that result in returning to previous levels of poorer attention?”

Jansari added that “further research is needed to demonstrate whether first, Decoder has any benefits beyond standard laboratory measures of attention and second, whether there is any implication, if any, for its impact on individuals with very complex clinical attentional disorders such as ADHD.”

Til Wykes, professor of clinical psychology and rehabilitation at King’s College London, said in an email that it is generally accepted that apps are beneficial but “high quality scientific evidence of benefit is scarce.”

Wkyes, who was not involved in the study, questioned if “this research is therefore welcome but it does only show benefits on another computer test not on real life. Does it really improve handling your emails and for how long?”

Helping us focus

Other ways of improving our attention are exercising, which is an “all-rounder” as Sahakian explained, because it improves cognition, physical health and mood.

“There is no magic bullet, unfortunately,” said Lavie. From her own research she has found that people’s attention can be improved when they engage in tasks that are more “difficult, so they can grab their attention.”

Larry Rosen, professor emeritus of psychology at California State University, Dominguez Hill, who co-authored the book “The Distracted Mind: Ancient Brains in a High-Tech World” explained that “we are dealing with an attention crisis” caused by our smartphones and other digital technologies.

In an email said “video gaming is one approach that may enhance attention and this study shows that such an approach will work with young adults.”

Specific types of gaming can fine tune our control processes and, over time, enrich connections in the prefrontal cortex which houses our attentional resources, he explained.