Brain games

by Toby Swaford, K-12 Education Coordinator

Growing up in the 1970’s, I was there for the beginning of the video game revolution.  The ability to control a few pixels on a screen seemed like the future had truly arrived at the local arcade.  Feeding quarters into the various incarnations of PONG, and latter Pac-Man, Defender, and Donkey Kong may have depleted my allowance, but apparently it wasn’t depleting my brain. At least that’s the claim of a recent study from the University of Illinois.

This is not your brain on video games

One of the things that has always interested me in playing video games was the learning curve; the feeling of accomplishment with mastering a new set of skills or defeating a particularly challenging level.  It turns out that there may be a physical reason for this.  In people that excel at videogames certain areas of the brain are larger, especially the caudate, the putamen, and the nucleus accumbens.

The putamen and caudate are related to motor learning and the ability to shift between different jobs quickly.  This ability to multitask has become ever more important in being successful in playing videogames.  If those areas of the brain help with the skills needed to play the game, the nucleus accumbens makes it all worth while.  Linked to feelings of reward and punishment, the nucleus accumbens is tweaked when the player makes it through a difficult section of the game, reinforcing the experience and making the player want to move on to the next level in the hopes of another reward.

Areas of the brain stimulated when you play video games

Game designers recognize this phenomenon and allow players to set difficulty levels within the game, as well as establishing learning curves with progressively harder tasks and new skills introduced as the game progresses.  This allows for players of different abilities to still have an enjoyable experience within their various skill levels, with good game design balancing the relationship between challenge and reinforcement.  In other words, a good game should be both stimulating and fun.

When it comes to these centers of the brain, is bigger better?  Yes and no.  The people in the study that possessed the larger areas learned more quickly than others, often mastering the required skills in a short amount of time.  Others showed little improvement, even after more than 20-hours of practice, leading the researchers to consider the possibility of an actual physical barrier to learning and developing these skills.  When it comes to playing a game, that barrier may not seem important. However, consider the multitasking that takes place with other daily activities such a driving a car.

While some people on the road are busy with basic tasks like steering, braking and accelerating, others are adept at doing all of these in addition to carrying on conversations, reading billboards, and listening to the radio.  These are all tasks that depend in part on the putamen and the caudate, but what happens when the nucleus accumbens gets into the act?  The area of the brain that looks for reward may try to find ways of stimulating itself; which may lead to other behaviors such as making calls or sending text messages, speeding, and generally treating the commute like, well, a video game.

Likewise, the desire for reward may lead some to spend excessive amounts of time in front of the video screen; in some extreme cases, allowing other requirements such as proper nutrition, exercise, hygiene, and social interaction to go by the wayside.   As with all things, moderation and balance are important.  Our brains are funny things and require a large variety of input and stimulation in order to grow and be healthy.  Find ways to invigorate the diverse centers of the mind; play games, read books, enjoy and create music and art, and yes, visit a museum.

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