Recently presented at the 2008 Games for Health conference in Baltimore, MindHabits is a game with endless possibilities to help individuals improve their self-esteem and performance. Its purpose is simple: manipulating your perception, training your mind to be aware of positive social responses while ignoring negative ones.

MindHabits was developed by Dr. Mark Baldwin, a psychology professor at McGill University in Montreal. Since 2004, Dr. Baldwin and his team have been working on developing tools that can help people have a better self-esteem. Initially known under the project name “EyeSpy” the focus of the title was to improve abilities by rejecting negative opinions.

“Our studies have shown that people with low self-esteem have an attentional bias for rejection and people with high self-esteem do not. The purpose of the EyeSpy project is to help change people’s attentional biase for rejection, more specifically to teach people with low-self-esteem to ignore rejection information,” explains the project’s early research page.

It is based on three concepts: inhibition, activation and association. Inhibition describes the process by which you stop paying attention to negative responses in your environment and begin to pay attention to positive cues instead. Activation refers to triggering a positive frame of mind. By bringing warm and positive thoughts to mind, you can shape your outlook to seek the positives in yourself and others.

Finally, association creates an optimistic self awareness by associating thoughts of you with positive concepts. This works to retrain the mind, especially if low self-esteem leads you to think of yourself in a poor light. Together, these concepts contribute to improved overall success, thanks to a brighter outlook. The game breaks down and demonstrates in the simplest of ways the power of positive thinking.

MindHabits as a game breaks down into four sections. The first and main mode, ‘Matrix’ improves inhibition, by requiring players to spot smiling faces among a board of frowning or disinterested faces. This mode was the one used in research testing. Secondly, ‘Who Are You’ improves your personal perception by having you pick words corresponding to your profile as quickly as possible. Every time you click correctly, a smiling face briefly appears, improving your self image through positive association.

‘Words’ works by activating positive feelings. The game, a basic word-search game has you finding positive terms like loved, friends, caring, cherish or wanted, which stimulate positive thoughts. In later levels you will also find your name hidden on the board, which also works on creating positive association. Finally, ‘Grow Your Chi’ continues to work on your inhibition, showing faces in a series of clouds. Again, players must spot the smiling ones to gain points and in later levels associate terms related to them, to improve self perception.

First tested last year with telemarketers before a shift, MindHabits showed a 17 per cent reduction in levels of stress-related hormone cortisol in participants. Dr. Baldwin hypothesized that similar results could be seen if applied to athletes, specifically in golf – a sport he practiced himself.

Further research at a Montreal-area golf course evaluated with 26 players, half who played the game on a portable device and the others a placebo. Results showed those who tried the game for only five minutes had a better performance. The tested golfers were better able to ignore mistakes, to move on to the next stroke and in turn stay focused and achieve better overall results.

“Total scores from those who had played the find-the-smile game were on average 5.24 strokes better than those in the control condition,” said Dr. Baldwin to Physorg.com. “These findings, while preliminary, are exciting in that they show the potential for significant performance effects as a result of attentional training.”

“Many kinds of performance – whether intellectual, creative or athletic – can be undermined by distracting thoughts about potential social evaluation and criticism,” added Baldwin. “Among golfers, for example, it is understood that when you hit a bad shot, you have to ‘shrug it off’ and shift your focus to the next shot. You can’t get caught up in self-criticism and in worries about what other people might think.”

But the effects are not subliminal, emphasizes Baldwin. “That’s a term I don’t use, because in psychology it means you’re unable to control what’s going on. We use the word ‘automatic.’ It’s like learning a golf swing in terms of physically learning a habit so that it happens automatically,” he said to the Montreal Gazette.

“In this case, it’s a psychological habit, so you’re practising disengaging from thoughts of social threat, rejection, criticism and so on. Those things can go on and sometimes are very conscious, but often they happen when you’re not even aware. If you can develop a habit were you can disengage from them, that can be helpful.”

While preliminary results are very promising, the team plans on continuing research this summer with more experienced players. But the effectiveness of the game is good news for more than just golfers.

“The interesting thing when you play this game and practise the mental habit is that it has nothing to do with golf,” he said. “It’s the general orientation. It’s the issue of self-criticism, social criticism, rejection, judgment, all those things that are core concerns for everybody. Even if you’re not conscious of it, it’s still going on in the back of your mind. So by addressing those things, that can certainly carry over to virtually any domain you might think of.”

MindHabits is available for PC as a 60-minute trial version and the full version costs $19.99 USD. No Macintosh or Linux versions are yet available.

Having tried the game one two occasions, for approximately 30 minutes each time, I feel MindHabits meets expectations. After playing all modes for at least five minutes, I felt relaxed and focused. I felt my mood immediately brighten after trying Matrix, and as I tried to focus on the smiling faces, I saw myself break into a smile as well. I also felt my outlook shift after trying Word, as the positive words effectively influenced my perception. As someone who often struggles with dark or depressive thoughts, I would not hesitate playing the game daily.