October 27, 2008
ABC News
Ned Potter and Julia Bain

It’s a jungle on the road out there, and like so many people, Steve Kramer, a 57-year-old financial adviser from Langhorne, Pa., worries how he’ll keep up behind the wheel as he gets older.

Kramer and his wife, Donna, agreed to take part in an experiment: playing a computer game. The software, made by Posit Science, is called an “exercise for the brain.”

“At first I thought, ‘ha-ha, just another game. But it became challenging to where you wanted to do it,” Donna Kramer said.

Allstate Insurance is now offering the game as a free trial to 100,000 Pennsylvania customers whose accident rates will be compared with a group of drivers not playing the games to see if it helps their reflexes and peripheral vision.

“There are a group of people, [ages] 50 to 75, that could benefit from some brain exercise, improve their driving skills, improve their attention, improve their visual skills,” said John Kane, regional distribution leader at Allstate Insurance Co.

If it proves successful, the company hopes to expand its pilot program into other states, or even lower premiums for frequent players.

“This might be an opportunity where we can offer a discount to someone based on the fact that they have taken the program and improved their driving skills,” Kane said.

But how does a video game improve driving?

The games themselves seem simple. In one, you watch fish, some of which have red rubies hidden inside them, and are asked to click on the right ones after they stop swimming.

That sounds like a piece of cake, but with swarms of fish swimming around your screen, it’s difficult to keep track.

“When you think you’ve mastered a task, it kicks it up a notch and you’re almost back to square one, trying to achieve the objective,” said Robert Lovelace, an Allstate customer who enrolled in the pilot program. He says he ultimately found the program’s skill level challenging.

“This software pointed out very quickly, for instance, that my vision in the lower left quadrant is not nearly as strong as in the upper right quadrant. I never realized that until I tried this.”

The game has earned support from many experts not involved in the experiment. Dr. Gary Small, author of “iBrain: Surviving the Technological Alteration of the Modern Mind,” and director of the UCLA Center on Aging, said that the novelty of a computer can keep the mind agile.

“In studies of cognitive training, we do find lasting effects with some of these programs, so if people continue to use the mental techniques if they’re interesting and engaging enough, you will see sustained effects,” Small said.

In one of his recent studies, Small compared the brain scans of patients reading books with brain scans of patients searching the Web and found that there was a huge increase in the activity in front part of the brain that’s involved in complex reasoning in decision making during virtual activities.

So keeping track of those fish might make it easier to keep track of other cars as you cross an intersection.

“It was amazing to me how fast it was and how you really had to pay attention,” said Donna Kramer, a teacher.

“You are able to react quicker because your field of vision has improved, and your cognitive ability and your ability to process what’s happening in front of you has improved via the exercise,” Allstate’s Kane said.

Steve Kramer said he hopes for other payoffs to come from playing the game as well; when their granddaughter comes to visit, he’ll always remember her name.