From action-packed shooter games to challenging strategy games, we all love a good video game. Many studies have focused on the neural and behavioral effects of long-term exposure to video games and whether they’re positive or negative. We’ve gathered the essential data and wrapped it up in an easily understandable way. But before we jump right into the topic, we’ll make a quick excurse to “Neuroscience 101”. (However, you can also skip the first paragraph below and head right to “So, what happens inside your brain while playing?”)
A quick introduction to the human brain
Let’s have a look at the structure and gross anatomy of your brain, to understand better how it functions.
So, we all know that the brain is more than just one weird-looking and jelly-like mass inside your head (even though it might like one of those blobfishes outside of its natural habitat). This organ is such a complex construct that there are various systems on how to divide the brain – depending on the textbook, multiple theories, and scientific groups (f.e. a neurosurgeon has a different view on the brain than a neuroscientist). But we won’t bother you with all of them and also won’t get too much into detail, so don’t worry 😉
Let’s begin with the five anatomical main brain parts:
- Medulla Oblongata
Each part indeed has its own tasks. F.e. the Cerebellum is responsible for balance and coordination. In contrast, the Diencephalon (with its sub-structures) takes care of body temperature, the body’s water balance, ingestion of food, feelings, and controls of the vegetative nervous system (which manages all vital body functions).
However, you’re wrong to think that each task is taken care of by just one single brain part. Because there is another essential system that divides the Cerebrum or, actually, its outer layer, the Cerebral Cortex, into four main lobes, which are also related to different vital brain functions:
- Frontal Lobe (voluntary movement of specific body parts, planning, attention, short-term-memory tasks and some more)
- Parietal Lobe (sensory information (sight, smell, touch, taste, hearing), as well as language processing and awareness/attention)
- Occipital Lobe (visual processing center: interpreting what you see, color differentiation, and motion perception)
- Temporal Lobe (mainly processes and interprets acoustic sensory input, but is also responsible for language comprehension, visual memories, and emotion association)
So, you see that it’s also quite difficult to even properly divide the human brain into sections and assign them their tasks. There are just so many bigger and smaller parts that have to be taken into account.
But one thing is sure, there are indeed tiny components inside your head, that make sure that all of those brain parts and sections can even work together: the Neurons or “nerve cells.” Neurons are classified as so-called “electrically excitable cells,” which, to be fair, might sound a little bit confusing. But it merely means that for this cell to react, it needs a specific electrical potential (“threshold potential”) to be triggered and perform an action. So, does this mean that you’ve got an ongoing high-voltage generator inside your head? Well, no. Distinct extracellular electrolyte concentrations achieve those electrical potentials. So, you don’t have to worry about getting your brain fried one day.
What all of those neurons have in common is that they are connected by “Synapses,” which pass electrical or chemical signals to other neurons. This “transport” of signals is the neuron’s form of communication. In general, you can say the more connections between those neurons, the better.
So, what happens inside your brain while playing?
The aim now is to understand the relationship between the use of video games and their neural correlates. Because as many studies have shown before, we know for sure, that video gaming affects the brain and, furthermore, causes changes in many regions of the brain and even our behavior.
The Max Planck Institute for Human Development in Berlin recently published a study to show that it is indeed possible to train certain regions of the brain with video games. For the study, 62 men between the ages of 20 and 45 were interviewed and examined for two months. Half of them had to play “Super Mario 64” for at least half an hour per day, while the others (the control group) weren’t allowed to play at all. With the help of Magnetic Resonance Imaging (MRI), the researchers were able to measure and compare the brain structure of the players. And indeed, at the end of the study, they were able to find significant differences in the brain structures of the gamers compared to the control group. They’ve observed an enlargement of the “gray matter,” in which the cell bodies of the nerve cells of the brain are located. The enlargement included the right Hippocampus, the Prefrontal Cortex, and parts of the Cerebellum. These areas of the brain are of central importance, among other things, for spatial orientation, memory formation, strategic thinking, and fine motor skills in the hands.
“While previous studies could only suspect a change in the brain structure of gamers, we’ve used this study to demonstrate a direct relationship between gaming and an increase in brain volume. This proves that certain brain regions can be specifically trained using video games,” says study leader Simone Kühn of the Max Planck Institute.
It might sound a little far-fetched, but researchers think that playing (certain) video games might even be of use for the therapy of diseases in which the corresponding brain regions are changed. This is the case, for example, with mental disorders such as schizophrenia, post-traumatic stress disorder, or neurodegenerative diseases such as Alzheimer’s dementia.
Are all video games beneficial?
It depends on what you want to improve. Different game genres have a more substantial impact on individual brain regions than others. Meaning, logic, puzzle, and jump-and-run games in particular train brain regions that are important for spatial navigation and problem-solving. In contrast, adventure and action-based games improved areas that are responsible for strategical thinking, attention, visual, and motor skills. Another research by neuroscientist and professor Dr. Daphné Bavelier at the Brain and Learning Laboratory at the Faculty of Psychology of the University of Geneva observed significant changes and improvements of the gamer’s Parietal and Frontal Lobe. And she also busted two video gaming myths:
- Video games do not have a detrimental effect on players’ vision; they actually seem to make players’ vision better.
- Gamers excel at tracking data, meaning they are better than non-gamers at quickly parsing through mass amounts of information
And in general, we can say that when we play video games, the body releases messenger substances such as catecholamines and the body’s own opiates, which on the one hand, ensure the well-being and, on the other hand also stimulate the formation of synapses in the brain.
But it’s also important to mention a quote of Oscar Wilde, who once said: “Everything in moderation, including moderation.” In the figurative sense, it means that the positive effects of playing video games decrease or vanish if you either overdo or underdo it. We know that connections between nerve cells usually do not last long or might get classified as inefficient after a short time when not used regularly. But we also know that video games can be addictive. Researchers have also found functional and structural changes in the neural reward system in gaming addicts when exposed to gaming cues that cause cravings. These neural changes are basically the same as those seen in other addictive disorders.
So, when done on both a regular basis and restricted to a healthy amount, video games don’t only make us happy, but also might make us a little smarter.