From the Archives: Some Brain Science for #VideoGamesDay

aaas-vgs-3
People are hungry for data about video games and the brain. One of our most popular stories, still consistently in the Top 10, is a longreads Cerebrum essay from back in 2009, “Video Games Affect the Brain—for Better and Worse.” Writer Douglas Gentile, Ph.D., concludes:

With the exception of educational games, most video games’ effects on brain and behavior are unintentional on the part of both the designers and the players. Nonetheless, research suggests that the effects are real. Video games are neither good nor bad. Rather, they are a powerful form of entertainment that does what good entertainment is supposed to do—it influences us.

In 2012, we followed up with a news story on research targeting more specific areas of cognition that might be affected by playing video games:

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Video Games and the Brain: Action, Strategy, and Pac-Man

Playing some video games can cause serious harm, while others might improve or restore skills, suggested three panelists at the American Association for the Advancement of Science this week.

“Not all games are created equal,” said Chandramallika Basak, a researcher at the University of Texas at Dallas. She and her colleagues study how memory and other skills change across our lifespan; part of that includes research investigating brain and cognitive effects of different games, especially as people get older.

Not everything in your brain declines with age (crystallized memory stays strong), but she’s looking for activities that could strengthen the ones that do, especially working memory (including how fast you can update current information) and task-switching (how fast you can switch when multitasking). Assuming there is a “functional threshold” for success at daily life, she wonders, “Can we keep this declining cognitive abilities stable for a few more years” above this threshold. “If I’m going to live to 90, I’d rather get it [dementia] at 89” as opposed to earlier, she said.

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AAAS’s Deborah Runkle moderates the Q&A session with, from left, Craig Anderson, Hilarie Cash, and Chandramallika Basak.

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Can Video Games Improve Brain Function?

NeurogamingL-R: C. Shawn Green, Adam Gazzaley, Jonathon Blow, and moderator Steve Hyman

Can a video game improve cognitive function? It is clear that, with training, one can get better at a particular task within a game. But can the benefits extend to other areas? Panelists who spoke Thursday night at the International Neuroethics Society public forum in San Diego believe the answer is yes.

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Can Tetris shape the brain?

While reading “How
to Forget Fear
,” a Times Online article
by Alice Fishburn and science writer Ed Yong, a study on using Tetris to control fear responses caught
my eye.

University of Oxford researcher Emily Holmes asked
people to play the block-arranging game while watching a grisly film full of
surgery and accidents. “She found that while these volunteers remembered just
as many details of the film as those who did not play Tetris, a week later they had fewer flashbacks and were less
affected emotionally by what they had seen,” the article says.

This led Holmes to hypothesize that playing the game “hogs
the brain’s processing power,” preventing the grisly images in the film from
becoming powerful memories. Yong and Fishburn write, “Tetris acts as a mental vaccine that protects against the creation
of strong fear memories and removes their emotional burden.”

Several studies
have found
that multitasking can lead to an inefficient use of brain power, but in this
case it had a positive effect and might have potential clinical applications
for people dealing with traumatic memories and phobias. This echoes the
conclusions of a recent
Cerebrum article
summarizing work
in the area, which argues that video games can have both beneficial and harmful
effects but that more research is needed to fully understand these changes.

Although we have been
covering
the potential influences of various video games on the brain for years, in a
bit of a coincidence, Tetris itself
is featured in our most recent news article, “Your Brain On . . .
line
.”

Along with more recent work, the article mentions a 1992
study in which Richard Haier of the University of California, Irvine “measured
the rate of glucose use in the cerebrum before the volunteers practiced [Tetris] and after four to eight weeks of
practice.” As scores rose, glucose use declined, indicating that the brain
became more efficient at playing the game over time.

A search for “Tetris and brain” in PubMed returned five
additional studies, two from 2009, on topics ranging from amnesia
to cortical
thickness
. The brain-research uses of the game may only be beginning.

-Johanna Goldberg

Video games stay on the brain?

Thinking of sneaking in a few rounds of Halo during your lunch break? You may want to reconsider—the video games we play may have long-lasting effects on how we study and work.

According to a new study in the journal Perception, different genres of video games “prime” us for certain ways of thinking. Scientists at Wheaton College in Norton, Mass., found that, after playing Unreal Tournament, a fast-action first-person shooting game, people were faster but less accurate at spatial and perception tasks. In contrast, after sitting down to Portal, which involves solving puzzles, people became more accurate but slower at the follow-up tasks.

In some ways, this is not too surprising. Scientists have long known that, over time, video games—like any form of entertainment—cause changes in the brain. As Douglas Gentile
writes in a recent Cerebrum piece
, these effects are many and can have both positive and negative influences. Fast-paced games can increase reaction times and perceptual discrimination, just as violent video games can blunt typical brain reactions to the suffering
of others.

But psychology professor Rolf Nelson, who led the study, speculates that the priming effect might have significant effects on our day-to-day work and school lives, since the changes show up after only an hour of play. Such a short chunk of time, he says, suggests that action fans may return to homework assignments with increased speed at the cost of making more mistakes; puzzle aficionados might become more methodical and accurate at work but fail to meet deadlines.

Determining whether that is actually the case will require significantly more study, of course. Video games are complex and varied and rarely have a single mode of play, while the tasks presented to research subjects don’t really reflect what goes on in the modern workplace. It’s also unclear how long the effect lasts and whether people can become “immune” to it. But such studies demonstrate the usefulness of research that parses out the exact effects of video games and other technologies on the brain. If confirmed, Nelson’s work suggests that some frantic Call of Duty action might help me meet pending afternoon deadlines—OK as long as my editor ensures an extra-sharp eye with some rounds of Tetris and Minesweeper.

-Aalok Mehta

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