Video Games Stronger Than Morphine: U.S. Military
Video game used as digital morphine on burned vets—what is the effect on kids?
Posted Aug 24, 2016
“I was on fire…I couldn’t speak or see to unbuckle my seat belt or open the door. I believe that my guardian angel just took me out of the truck.”
First Lieutenant Sam Brown is laying in the burn unit of Brooke Army Medical Center in San Antonio, describing the horrible events that took place in 2008 in Kandahar, Afghanistan, when his Humvee was hit by an IED and exploded. He was engulfed in flames and suffered third-degree burns over 30 percent of his body; his injuries were so severe that he was kept in a medically-induced coma for the first few weeks to enable his survival.
While his eyes look the same as in the pictures of the handsome cadet who had recently graduated from West Point, his face now bore the scars of badly burned flesh. Sam endured more than two dozen painful surgeries, but the most excruciating pain came from the daily wound care and the physical therapy. In fact, the procedures were so painful and unbearable that there were times when Sam's superior officers would have to order him to undergo treatment.
As with many burn victims, narcotic painkillers were the only medication that provided some relief from the daily pain. While narcotic opiates have an analgesic effect that stimulates pain-dampening endorphin release, they are also highly addictive. As Sam grew increasingly concerned about his dependence on narcotics, his doctor suggested an experimental treatment to help Sam lessen his pain—a video game called SnowWorld.
Desperate, Sam was willing to give it a try: “I was a little bit skeptical. But honestly, I was willing to try anything.”
The game was developed several years earlier at the University of Washington by David Patterson and Hunter Hoffman, two psychologists working on non-opioid pain management methods to help burn victims at Harbor View Burn Center in Seattle. They discovered that when patients were immersed in a virtual reality game, their sensation of pain greatly decreased.
Indeed, in 2011, the military conducted a small study using SnowWorld and got even more dramatic results: For soldiers in the most severe pain, SnowWorld worked better than morphine. The researchers were not clear what the exact mechanism of this video analgesic effect was; some ascribed it to “cognitive distraction.”
In my interview with the Navy’s head of Addiction Research, Commander Dr. Andrew Doan, he stated that there is an endorphin-increasing mechanism that’s not entirely understood; he embraces the notion of screens acting as “digital pharmakeia” (Greek for pharmaceuticals), a term he coined to explain the neurobiological effects produced by video technologies.
Brain imaging would eventually confirm that burn patients treated with SnowWorld virtual reality (VR) were experiencing less pain in the parts of their brain associated with processing pain. (See figure at left.) These stunning findings have led the military to further pursue the use of virtual reality and video games as a quasi-digital drug to help treat pain.
When I interviewed Lt. Brown about his experience using a video game for pain management, he said, "I was for sure feeling less pain than I was with the morphine. I think it definitely could have been an increase in my dopamine or endorphins."
Most people are shocked to hear that a video game can actually be more potent than morphine. While this is a phenomenal advance in pain management medicine and for use with burn victims, it begs the question: Just what effect is this digital drug—a digital drug that’s more powerful than morphine—having on the brains and nervous systems of seven-year-olds who are ingesting very similar digital drugs on their glowing screens? And, if stimulating screens are indeed more powerful than morphine, can they be just as addicting?
As I discuss in my book, Glow Kids, screen tech can affect the brain just like a digital drug: Gaming raises dopamine levels by 100 percent and activates the H-P-A (the Hypothalmus-Pituatary-Adrenal Axis, otherwise known as the "fight or flight" response). Shockingly, recent brain imaging has shown that excessive gaming negatively impacts the frontal cortex—the executive functioning region of the brain which also controls impulsivity—in exactly the same way that cocaine does. This is why Peter Whybrow, head of neuroscience at the University of California, Los Angeles, calls screens "electronic cocaine" and other researchers call video games "digital heroin."
Many of us who research tech addiction and work with screen-addicted kids understand that screens can be addicting. We didn't know that they are so powerful that they can be used as digital morphine. Do you want your child digitally ingesting something that has such a powerful neurobiological effect?
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