Over the last six years, there have been a number of studies where they place an individual in an fMRI and having them play a video game while measuring a variety of measures of cognitive activity. One that intrigues me happened a number of years ago at the University of Southern California, where subjects played a game called “Tactical Ops”. Normally, subjects stuck inside a pounding MRI machine can handle only a max of 20 minutes before a break. In this case, an hour later the players were still going strong.
The actual results of tracking the blood flow and measuring the dopamine levels is not nearly as important as what this says about attention and the power of intermittent reinforcement.
On a larger level, most studies have concluded that while there are definitely down-sides to digital game addiction, playing certain games can truly improve pattern recognition, systems thinking, patience, and peripheral vision.
Rick’s Recommended Games:
There is an area of the brain (the cingulate cortex for you neuro-geeks) that is partly concerned with how much attention is given to experiencing a particular pain. It has been found that the use of virtual reality is so stimulating, that it leaves less attention available to tune in to the pain… hence we don’t feel it as much. In this particular research, burn victims found relief by immersing themselves in cooling virtual environment.
You see, pain is all in the mind. Once the pain signal is sent to the brain, what we experience and how intensely we experience it is all a matter of how the brain interprets it. This is why when you touch something hot or very cold, for a split second you can’t tell the difference. This is also why we don’t notice a pain when we are very occupied. (ever notice a bruise later and not have any idea how you got it).
Memory Prowess Linked to Gaming
Brand new studies by British researchers show that engagement with technology has different effects on working memory, the type of memory that allows you to remember and use information. Spending time on Facebook appears to have about the same effect as working Sudoku puzzles, but spending time on Twitter and YouTube were likely to weaken memory.
It also appears that video games that involve strategy and planning also succeed in improving working memory. At the core of the results is the fact that activities that require you to keep track of information and actions and then planning your next actions train the working memory. To the contrary, instant information sources like twitter or YouTube are just about absorbing continous streams of short information negatively impacting memory. (see previous blog on the Ibrain)
Internet addiction center opens in US
A first of its kind in the US, a new residential treatment center for internet/gaming addicts has opened in Washington. What may be significant here is that the psychotherapists and the neurologists area arriving at some of the same conclusions… continuous engagement with information technology fundamentally alters the brain. Linda Stone (1998) coined the phrase “continuous partial attention” to describe the behavior of continually keeping tabs on everything, but never deeply focusing on anything. Gary Small (2008) notes that when “paying continuous partial attention, people place their brain in a heightened state of stress. They no longer have time to reflect, contemplate or make thoughtful decisions” leading to mistakes, feelings of irritability, and distractedness.
Other research has recently begun to suggest that the increased dopamine levels seen in information addicts (sustained continuous partial attention) mimics levels found in other addictions.
Several blogs and news sources are turning up a recent study done at the University of Georgia by Dr. N. Hertz, whereby patients with Parkinsons used Wii and showed significant improvement in motor coordination and affect.
For the eight-week pilot study, 20 Parkinson’s patients spent an hour playing the Wii three times a week for four weeks. By the end of the study, many patients could beat challengers on the games they practiced. It’s already known that exercise and video games independently can increase the production of dopamine, a neurotransmitter deficient in Parkinson’s patients. Dr. Hertz sumizes that this is also happening here. What really surprised the researchers was that patients showed little if any depression (a common side effect of Parkinsons).
With what we know about brain plasticity and the ability to rewire connections, it is probably no real surprise that training in a game that emphasizes gross and fine motor coordination created new cortical connections enabling patients to show behavioral improvement. What is new, is the increasing willingness of traditional medicine to look at vehicles that are by design highly motivational, rather than traditional therapies.
So, the next time you play a game, there is probably more going on than you think… your brain is constantly rewiring itself in accordance with what you do. (kind of a scary thought!)