While playing video games when you were growing up, your parents probably told you that the games were likely to rot your brain and make you perform worse at school. Well, now it’s time to tell mom and dad that they might have been wrong for all of these years. Researchers at Ruhr-University Bochum in Germany conducted a study that says certain video games can actually increase cognitive function, though they still aren’t too sure why.
17 people who played at least 15 hours of video games per week were pitted against 17 of those that didn’t play video games more than an hour or two per week in a learning competition. They were given a task known as the “weather prediction task” that tests your knowledge of probabilities, and the brain activity of the participants was measured.
The gamers performed at a higher level than those that don’t pick up the controller during the task, especially when the answers yielded higher uncertainties. Sabrina Schenk is one of the authors of the study, and she said that “Our study shows that games are better in analyzing a situation quickly, to generate new knowledge and categorize facts.” They noted that this type of function comes from the hippocampus region of the brain.
“We think that playing video games trains certain brain regions like the hippocampus,” Schenk said. “That is not only important for young people, but also for older people; this is because changes in the hippocampus can lead to a decrease in memory performance. Maybe we can treat that with video games in the future.”
Gamers and non-gamers shared much of the same brain function in certain aspects that included the ability to pay attention retain certain memory. The gamers, though, had higher functions that allowed them to have increased visual imagery and semantic memory. In certain video games, you have to know your surroundings like the back of your hand to gain an advantage and predict where other players are going to be based on past results. This is part of what gives the gamers the edge in cognitive function.
There was also another study that supported the findings that came from Germany, and this one was led by Chandramallika Basak, PhD, from the University of Texas. “When researchers use video games as a tool for cognitive enhancement, they assume that game performance relies on specific cognitive/brain function,” Basak said. While the results were similar, Basak wasn’t too quick to draw conclusions. “Yet there is little evidence that establishes such a connection.”
In Basak’s study, subjects were asked to play different genres of video games that included one action game and one strategy game. Basak said that the results from different genres made the relationship with the brain more complicated, adding that “The aim of our study was not only to evaluate the three-way game-cognition-brain relationship, but also to assess this relationship for two different types of games.”
This study was more unique in the fact that adults who had never really played video games before were tasked with taking on the action and puzzle genres. The white matter of the brain performed better in the stria terminalis region of the brain for action games, while the hippocampal region was centralized in the strategy games. This would end up muddying the results a bit compared to the German study, but the advantages of video games were seen in both.
“Although cognition, to a large extent, was a common predictor of both types of game learning, regional white matter FA could separately predict action and strategy game learning,” Basak said. “Given the neural and cognitive correlates of strategy game learning, strategy games may provide a more beneficial training tool for adults suffering from memory-related disorders or declines in processing speed.”
Picking the right game to increase cognitive function isn’t easy, according to Basak. While some games can help, others may hinder cognitive function. “Not all games are created equal, yet people generalize results from one video game to other video games,” Basak said. “Such oversimplification has serious consequences on research on video game training. I believe that we need to investigate specific brain-cognition associations for different genres of video games before theorizing about the potential impact of a training on a particular genre of video game.”
Regardless, many of the results that have come from studying the brain’s activity while playing video games have been positive thus far. Some even believe that stimulating the hippocampus can also play a part in reducing mental illnesses such as Alzheimer’s, depression and schizophrenia. Just know that video games such as the Super Mario 3D series produced better results than the popular Call of Duty franchise.