Daphne Bavelier and her team at the University of Rochester have been doing research looking at the effect of video gaming on something called visual attention. This is not the same as what we normally call “attention” which is really something we control and do on purpose. Visual attention is the brains ability to focus on an object or event withing the visual field. It seems that gamers can “see” something new in their visual field more quickly than non-gamers. It also appears that they can also pay simultaneous attention to more objects (gamers = 5, non-gamers = 3). Gamers I talked to said that they could easily keep track of more complex visual environments now than they could back when they started.
Now if we add the idea of cognitive exhaustion; that brains become more efficient in their use of energy (glucose) as it gets better at doing something, then it stands to reason that as gamers get better at “seeing” more objects or events in on the screen, that they do so more effortlessly, leaving more cognitive resources to other cerebral processes like motor reflex.
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!)
A fascinating article and interview by Will Wright of Biologist E. O. Wilson, professor emeritus at Harvard University, is a two-time Pulitzer-winning ant expert who helped develop theories of island biogeography, chemical ecology, and sociobiology. For those of you who are not games, Wright is the creator of The Sims (the most successful computer game in history).
E.O. Wilson And Will Wright: Ant Lovers Unite! An Open Mic Discussion
While I am particularly fascinated by, and a bit myopic about the brain and technology (Hence the Keynote on that subject), I am caused to reflect on the much greater interaction between gaming and society by this interview. Perhaps it is the foundational science to Wright’s games that took them to a different level than seen before. This causes me to think that really effective games have got to resonate with some of the basic biological and sociological properties of our selves and our cultures.