The average person now clocks up on average 10,000 hours of video gaming by the age of 21. Our brains change and re-organize in response to our activities, so what does this amount of gaming do to our brains? Neuroscience is just starting to find out.
The Gamer’s Brain
A paper published in Proceedings of the Royal Society B, studied adult video gamers who played for at least six hours per week. They were looking to confirm that video gamers have better visual attention abilities. This makes sense of course, video gaming is a visual experience that requires fast responses based on what you are seeing. In that sense the study showed nothing new. Gamers do indeed have better visual attention.
The study also found something that’s possibly a little alarming however. Gamers tend to use a part of the brain known as the caudate-nucleus more than non-gamers. First author Dr. Gregory West explains that “Past research has shown that people who rely on caudate nucleus-dependent strategies have lower grey matter and functional brain activity in the hippocampus. This means that people who spend a lot of time playing video games may have reduced hippocampal integrity, which is associated with an increased risk of neurological disorders such as Alzheimer’s disease.”
[P]eople who spend a lot of time playing video games may have reduced hippocampal integrity, which is associated with an increased risk of neurological disorders such as Alzheimer’s disease.
Don’t worry just yet however, the study itself did not find a reduction in the gamers’ grey matter, but it warrants further investigation.
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The Compulsive Gamer’s Brain
In South Korea, the largest study of its kind looked at what changes are made to the brains of compulsive gamers. They found that chronic video gamers’ brains are rewired to allow them to deal with new information quickly, but this also leaves them with poor impulse control.
Over 100 boys took part in the study. Their ages ranged from 10 to 19 and all underwent MRI scans to map the structure of their brains. These scans were compared to 80 boys who were not compulsive gamers.
“Most of the differences we see could be considered beneficial. However the good changes could be inseparable from problems that come with them” – senior author Dr. Jeffrey Anderson
The first group of boys play video games to the extent that it is classified as a disorder. Video gaming can be more important to them than sleeping or eating. The brain networks responsible for vision and hearing processing were strongly connected to the salience network. The what now? The salience network is what allows us to notice and ready ourselves to act on important information. In an action video game, where danger lurks at every corner, this is obviously an advantage. Chronic gamers can spot and react to the danger a lot quicker than non-gamers.
“Hyperconnectivity between these brain networks could lead to a more robust ability to direct attention toward targets, and to recognize novel information in the environment. The changes could essentially help someone to think more efficiently.” – Dr. Anderson
Worringly, the researchers also found hyper-connections between the dorsolateral prefrontal cortex and temporoparietal junction in the brain. This is not so good. Strong inter-connection between these regions are typically associated with people with Autism, Down’s Syndrome or Schizophrenia. So what does this mean for gamers? the researchers speculate that it could lead to poor impulse control. Although the study does make the point that “ At this point it’s not known whether persistent video gaming causes rewiring of the brain, or whether people who are wired differently are drawn to video games.”
So what do these studies tell us? Video gaming may help us to think more efficiently and react to important events faster. However it may also cause changes in our brains that resemble those in the brains of people with Alzheimer’s, Autism, Schizophrenia and/or Down’s syndrome. As is often the case, more research needs to be done. However, putting down the gamepad every now and then is definitely not going to hurt…
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