How Microcomputers Are Being Used for Cognitive Therapy

From the time when computers were introduced into schools about a dozen years ago, teachers have had an opportunity to watch closely how students interact with these wondrous machines. It's no great surprise that computers have been seen to assist intellectual growth. But what is surprising is how computers can help boost student self-esteem and self-confidence.

As students interact with computers, they are given constant feedback on their current progress. With well-designed educational software they can almost feel their minds growing. As students develop a mastery of several educational computer programs, their sense of self-esteem and self-confidence naturally rises. Thus, the very act of interacting with computers may change a student's sense of self.

If, then, computers can help strengthen the self-image of schoolchildren, shouldn't they also be able to strengthen the self-image adults in the larger population, as well? This very question was asked and answered by occupational therapists at St. Elizabeth's Hospital, a publicly-funded psychiatric hospital in Washington DC.

About ten years ago the hospital bought two Apple IIc computer systems for use by staff and residents. Along with the computers they bought a wide selection of software.

The aim of the computer project was to bring residents to the computer lab in small groups, giving them the opportunity to interact with both the computers and with one another. Suzanne Pickering, the occupational therapist supervising the computer project, explains that the residents take a strong interest in working with the computers. The software engages their minds, providing a welcome stimulus within their daily routine.

Pickering further explains that the nature of the software program being used seems less important to the residents than the fact that they're getting to use the computer itself. Residents of the hospital take pride in simply sitting at the computer and using whatever software is available. Yet choosing which software to use with the residents is no easy decision.

The two categories of programs most often used are drill-and-practice software and creative expression software. In the drill-and-practice category are the math, spelling, geography, and problem-solving games most frequently used with elementary and middle school students. In the creative expression category are programs such as Print Shop and AppleWorks.

Pickering explains that her objective is to get residents quickly involved in a computer activity that's not overly complicated. While the residents have great enthusiasm for using computers, their attention spans are not always long. For the maximum beneficial result, residents need to be given software that allows them to achieve actual, demonstrable success within the first few minutes of booting the program. The programs need to coax them along to greater and greater challenges, all the while giving them positive and encouraging feedback.

The goal is to produce small intellectual fireworks in their brains as they develop greater and greater skill at any given cognitive activity. The object is to facilitate and encourage the growth of new neural links in their minds.

An interesting analogy is offered by Pickering. Just as sit-ups can help strengthen lower back muscles, so too can cognitive drills help strengthen a person's sense of self. And once a person's sense of self is strengthened, once they have a stronger a renewed sense of their own being, a positive spillover effect results. By engaging and stimulating one facet of the mind, other facets of the mind show improvement as well.

In terms of creative expression software, the goal of the project is to reinforce the residents self-concept as artistic creators. A simple Print Shop sign serves as visible proof of their creative powers.

To help celebrate the residents' creativity, the walls of the computer lab are adorned with their handiwork. What started as a small computer lab has grown to become a small art museum as well. Extra printed copies of their creative work are given the residents to show others.

In discussing the potential for computer labs like this at other psychiatric hospitals, Pickering mentioned that she's eager to hear from occupational therapists in other cities who might be doing similar work. It makes sense to share ideas and experiences in this fledgling new field of mental therapy.

The operation of the human mind remains one of the great mysteries of all time. Yet you need not be a neuroscientist to realize that computer-assisted cognitive therapy may have long-lasting positive effects for those enduring mental illness. If the sole result of these computer interactions is to bring a different and new interest into these peoples' lives, that along can this such projects worthwhile.

Somehow , I suspect, this project will accomplish far more.

Phil Shapiro

Suzanne Pickering, Occupational Therapy

St. Elizabeth's Hospital

2700 Martin Luther King Ave. SE

Washington DC 20032

(202) 373-6901 (work)

Recommended reading:

Turkle, Sherry. The Second Self: Computers and the Human Spirit. New York: Simon and Schuster, 1984.

Phil Shapiro

[This article may be freely reprinted and redistributed in any form.]

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