Dance 'n' Back

A dual n-back tool set to a DDR-style music game.

I’d like to share a new entry into my “Make Something Excruciating Into Something Slightly Fun” series!

Dual N-Back is basically doing two N-Back tasks at the same time – where you are shown a series of things and have to highlight when what you were just shown was the same as the one 2 back, or 3 back, or however long the N is. Gwern Branwen has explained it very well. Research suggests it is possibly a (unique) task that can help improve working memory and fluid intelligence. 

We don’t know if it’s unique partially because it’s unclear what element(s) of the task generates this effect. Is it just cycling things through working memory? Is the shifting comparisons? Would they still work without the time pressure?

I’ve made a simple rhythm game (think Guitar Hero or Dance Dance Revolution, if those still even exist today) that allows you to play around with this. The invisibility mode tests rotating working memory. The “Echo Bonus” refers to the more standard N-back challenge. I think both dials are probably useful to crank up if either of them are – but that’s a question I have not resolved to my satisfaction. I’d say there’s a 35% chance the research is at least vaguely right? Hard to guess with current research standards, but it isn’t counter-intuitive in the extreme or anything. It’s an incredible claim and there is suggestive research. I’m honestly not sure where that leaves us, but it’s not nowhere. 

The how-accurately-do-you-keep-to-the-beat question is bizarrely hard to answer, so I’ve come up with a bit of a funny work-around – as long as you keep a beat, it doesn’t have to be where I think the song’s beat is. This is massively advantageous for a couple of reasons – essentially, it is the difference between being ‘accurate’ and making something that doesn’t drive people up the wall. The N-Back/“Echo Bonus” stuff requires you to actually play the game, and is timing-sensitive as well. This isn’t just standard n-back with a soundtrack, after all. 

And obviously, unlike any other rhythm game I am aware of, it’s randomly generated every time. Without that, the working memory tests would actually be tests of longer-term memory. This means that even the invisibility mode (which I think exists in some versions of DDR) may be substantially more useful than it is elsewhere. 

When you see an echo the right number of beats apart, hit space, and you’ll get a bonus. Simple.

Dance ‘n’ Back