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Gaming the Brain

Playing video games prepares the brain for complex activities

It's not uncommon these days to see people of every age (from elementary school kids to adults) sitting for hours on end in front of television or computer screens playing video games. People even do it on their phones. Sometimes it feels like every time you turn around you can catch someone playing some sort of computerized game. And, as you have most likely heard, there has been a lot of attention devoted to the negative aspects of such games - whether it's the consequences of violent video games on behavior or the distraction caused by always having a hand held device in your hand. But, it turns out, that there are some benefits of playing video games too. New research suggests, in fact, that playing video games as a kid may prepare your brain for excelling at complex activities (think laparoscopic surgery or piloting a plane) as an adult.

In a study published last month in the journal, Cortex, researchers from York University in Canada asked young men who played a minimum of 4 hours of action video games a week for several years (i.e., gamers) to complete a number of complex motor skills requiring significant hand-eye coordination. While they were doing this, their brains were scanned using fMRI. The researchers also asked males of the same age and background who did not have extensive video game experience (non-gamers) to perform the same tasks.

In the fMRI scanner, the young men were asked to complete a set of increasingly difficult motor activities, such as controlling a joystick to guide a curser to reach a target on the computer screen where moving the joystick in one direction actually caused the curser to move in the opposite direction. Importantly, before the gamers and non-gamers' brains were scanned, the researchers gave both groups some practice so that everyone would be equally good at these motor tasks.

What the researchers found was that the gamers' brains looked different than the non-gamers' brains when preparing to do the motor tasks. First, the gamers' tended to show more activation than the non-gamers in an area of the prefrontal cortex important for breaking apart movements of the eyes and hands. These movements often go together when one is reaching towards a target or trying to grab an object. But, in the current experiment, the movements of the hands and eyes needed to be separated to ensure that moving the joystick in one direction would actually cause a curser to move in a different direction. This is true in other complex motor activities (e.g., some surgical procedures) as well. Second, the non-gamers tended to activate sensory and motor areas of the brain more than the gamers. In other words, the gamers needed less of this neural real estate to perform as well as the non-gamers on the motor tasks.

The finding that playing action video games can change how the brain is organized to plan complex motor tasks is exciting because it suggests that video game play may enhance folks' ability to learn complex activities like laparoscopic surgery - activities that benefit from the ability to have intricate control over hand and eye movements. Video game play may also help to combat movement deficits seen in the early stages of degenerative diseases such as Alzheimer's by helping the brain reorganize itself to stave off movement errors.

Of course, it's important to point out that, in this research, the gamers and non-gamers were not randomly picked, but were instead chosen for their gaming experience. This means that it's possible that people with particular types of brain functioning choose to play video games rather than video game play changing how the brain is organized to support complex motor activities. But, there is a bevy of research suggesting that gaming drives the brain rather than the other way around. For instance, in one study by Daphne Bavelier and her colleagues, college students with little previous video game experience were asked to play the popular action video game, Medal of Honor, for 10 days in a row. After playing Medal of Honor, people showed improved attention and memory abilities on a number of different tasks. Moreover, the better people got at Medal of Honor, the more their attention and memory skills sky-rocketed, suggesting that gaming does indeed change the brain.

The take home point? Not all gaming is bad. In fact, some video game play in childhood may help to develop skills that are important for complex motor activities people often encounter later in life. Keep in mind, however, that the benefits of video game play max out after several hours of play a day. Eight hours a day, every day, will likely have diminishing returns in terms of reorganizing the brain to support exceptional performance.

For more on training the brain, check out my new book Choke.

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Granek, J. A., Gorbet, D. J., & Sergio, L. E. (2010). Extensive video-game experience alters cortical networks for complex visuomotor transformations. Cortex, 46, 1165-1177.