When I’m playing Assassin’s Creed or Call of Duty, my brain is totally absorbed in this virtual environment. But what happens to my brain when I come out of it? Is it different? This WEEK, we humans will spend 3 billion hours playing video games; 1.2 billion people play regularly… 99 percent of boys and 94 percent of girls under 18 lock their eyeballs on a video game quote “regularly” according to game designer and author Jane McGonigal. That’s an incredible amount of time living in what amounts to an alternate reality for the brain.
A study from the Proceedings of the Royal Society B that came out last December (I think it just came out in the journal – maybe the study was conducted last December?) , looked at the brains of gamers while playing and offer another alleged turn in the thumbscrews of action games… Their study found that video game players have a less robust striatum nucleus — the part of the brain that constructs an internal representation of the outside world. Essentially, games aren’t helping people learn to map the real world, at least according to this study. Action gamers are using something called “response learning” instead of the more advanced “place learning.”
To simplify, imagine you’re trying to get to a familiar place like a friend’s house or your favorite restaurant: “response learning” is when your brain creates a map using landmarks; but “place learning” is an advanced internal map so you know to turn based on distance and direction — it’s the difference between associating lots of little bits of information … “I have to turn when I see the gas station” as opposed to combining that information into an understanding of the external world. These researchers think the action video game players are under-developing their striatum to such a degree that it might affect them throughout their lives; they may even develop a neurological disorder! Some news outlets have called this a risk of Alzheimers, but that’s a pretty damn big jump.
Here’s the thing: for every study of games negatively affecting our brains there are plenty of studies saying the opposite. A study in July of last year in Molecular Psychiatry put gamers into magnetic resonance imagers to reveal how grey matter was developing in their cabezas. They found a correlation in the size of the entorhinal cortex, and left occipital cortex/inferior parietal lobes related to their ‘joystick years’ or the amount of time they played certain video games. According to their results, people who played more logic, puzzle, and platform games had a larger entorhinal cortex, but action-based role-playing games had a smaller one. The entorhinal cortex works with the hippocampus to create memories and maps of your life — so you know when and where something happened as well as how it fits in with what happened the day before, or last time you met that person. Another study in that journal from February of the same year found similar results using games like Commander Keen and Super Mario 64.
Science is saying, platformers and logic games are great for the entorhinal cortex, even while action-based games aren’t. That being said, however, the hippocampus and grey matter in ALL video game players had added plasticity overall! Plasticity is the ability for the brain to adapt and change neural pathways.
More plasticity is better! And it’s not just the plasticity, a study done with chimpanzees published in Science News last month assessed how chimps brains responded to video games. After teaching them to play a cooperative game, the researchers found cells in the chimp’s brains predicted what the next move of the OTHER chimp 79.4 percent of the time! These chimps understood what was going on in the brains of their co-op players. We KNOW video games change how our brain works, but whether that’s a good or bad thing seems to change as new research comes out… We cover this research all the time. For instance, do videogames make you more aggressive?