Most people can detect clues to mental illness while playing strategy game

Published on April 11, 2013 at 12:50 AM · No Comments

Most people are so attuned to the nuances of social interaction that they can detect clues to mental illness while playing a strategy game with someone they have never met.

That was the finding of a team of scientists led by Read Montague, director of the Human Neuroimaging Laboratory at the Virginia Tech Carilion Research Institute. The researchers discovered that healthy people and those with borderline personality disorder displayed different patterns of behavior while playing an online strategy game, so much so that when healthy players played people with borderline personality disorder, they gave up on trying to predict what their partners would do next.

For their large neuroimaging study, the scientists used a multiround social interaction game, the investor-trustee game, to study the level of strategic thinking in 195 pairs of subjects. In each pair, one player played the investor and the other the trustee. The investor chose how much money to send the trustee, and the trustee in turn decided how much to return to the investor. Profit required the cooperation of both players.

"This classic tit-for-tat game allows us to probe people's responses to the social gestures of others," said Montague, who also directs the Computational Psychiatry Unit, an academic center that uses computational models to understand mental disease. "It further allows us to see how people form models of one another. These insights are important for understanding a range of mental illnesses, as the ability to infer other people's intentions is an essential component of healthy cognition."

The scientists classified the investors according to varying levels of strategic depth of thought. The healthy subjects fell into three categories: about half simply responded to the amount the other player sent; about one-quarter built a model of their partner's behavior; and the remaining quarter considered not just their model of their partner, but also their partner's models of them.

Not surprisingly, the depth-of-thought style of play correlated with success, with the players who looked deeper into interactions making considerably more money than those who played at a shallow level.

When healthy subjects played people with borderline personality disorder, though, they were far less likely to exhibit depth of thought.

"People with borderline personality disorder are characterized by their unstable relationships, and when they play this game, they tend to break cooperation," said Montague. "The healthy subjects picked up on the erratic behavior, likely without even realizing it, and far fewer played strategically."

Notably, the functional magnetic resonance imaging of the subjects' brains revealed that each category of player showed distinct neural correlates of learning signals associated with differing depths of thought. The scientists used hyperscanning, a technique Montague invented that enables subjects in different brain scanners to interact in real time, regardless of geography. Hyperscanning allows scientists to eavesdrop on brain activity during social exchanges in scanners, whether across the hallway or across the world.

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