Can Gaming Boost Brain Function?

by Roxanna Salim

Technology has advanced rapidly over the last decade in both the gaming and scientific worlds creating a very promising convergence that has resulted in gaming that is much more than mere leisure activity. In a NY Times magazine article entitled “Can video games fend off mental decline?” Dr. Adam Gazzeley, a neuroscientist at the University of California-San Francisco, was featured for his video game NeuroRacer that was designed as a therapeutic intervention for older adults to improve deficits that affect selective attention and working memory. The promising conclusion of this work is that we can enhance brain functioning through gaming that may lead to improvement in a variety of kinds of performance and, potentially, reverse declines in cognitive functioning that come with aging (1). In this blog, I will review highlights from Dr. Gazzeley’s research and consider implications for managing our effectiveness in the everyday world.

It wasn’t long ago when people would rush home to play what now looks like primitive video games such as Super Mario Brothers or Lemmings. If you don’t remember the game Lemmings with quite as much nostalgia as I do, the object was for the player to lead a group of green rodents through a maze by avoiding obstacles. Interestingly, this early video game provided more than just entertainment. It promoted positive social behavior by teaching players how to help others overcome literal obstacles1. Research suggests that when presented with a real-life scenario, young adults who played Lemmings were more likely to help another person after a mishap (1,2). More recent research on the effects of games on cognitive performance suggests that young adults playing first person shooter games (i.e., Call of Duty for one hour a day, five days a week, for about eight weeks) were better able to detect intricate visual details in complex displays (1). Other studies report that gaming may be useful in business areas requiring meticulous visual discrimination and detection, such as architectural design (1).

Of course, many of these games can have negative effects and this downside has been well documented (3). Some video games are associated with undesirable outcomes such as aggression, obesity, and possibly even antisocial behavior. Whatever the benefits, games are certainly compelling. The average child plays roughly two hours of video games a day, which is about three times what the average daily gaming time was only a decade ago (1). The question is: How can video games be designed to maximize positive benefits and minimize negative effects?

This is where Dr. Gazzeley’s research comes into play. He and his team recently designed new forms of video games to promote changes in cognitive performance. In their groundbreaking initial study, they developed a custom-designed driving game called Neuroracer where players are tasked with driving on a virtual road while being presented with a continuous stream of colored shape targets (1). The goal is to drive safely while responding to targets with specific shapes and ignoring others. The game includes a form of multitasking that requires complex cognitive processing as “drivers” pay attention to the road while detecting important targets. Dr. Gazzeley and his team found that the game decreased age-related cognitive decline in senior citizens and improved their memory, attention to detail, and the ability to multitask. This work is now being extended to new games and new applications as Dr. Gazzeley’s team is working on a game called EVO (where the players collect stars and gems from foreign worlds). EVO is designed to address attention deficit disorders in children and is showing promising early results (3,4).

Dr. Gazzeley’s team indicates that these findings point to the high level of “neuroplasticity” in cognitive control centers relevant to multitasking and related functions. Neuroplasticity refers to the brain’s ability to form new neural connections and pathways as a result of changes in behavior or environment. Recent research shows that every time we learn a task or experience new things, unique neural pathways of our brain are affected. These effects help shape the brain’s capability and can lead to improved performance as a result of cognitive training and practice. A recent surge in “brain training” software is aimed at leveraging neuroplasticity to produce cognitive improvements. One such program trains users on computer simulations of complex cognitive tasks (i.e., a card-sorting task) to strengthen capabilities in attention and memory. Some of this training software can lead to temporary boosts in performance on working memory tasks.

What Dr. Gazzeley’s groundbreaking research tells us is that the proper form of video game training can lead to neural changes that impact memory, multitasking and other functions that impact our daily lives. Ultimately, this approach may help us improve our brain’s performance while playing an entertaining video game. While NeuroRacer is not set up for use in performance improvement at work just yet, we can use elements of Gazzeley’s research to create effective gaming as part of workplace training interventions. The take-home message: while not all gaming is created equal, the potential to harness the fun and power of games can provide motivating activities that also improve brain health and enhance performance in powerful ways. We will learn more about the critical elements of effective programs and how to differentiate those that work from those that don’t as the research continues.

References

  1. Bavelier, D. & Davidson, R. (2013). Games do you good. Nature, 494. 425-426. 
  2. Greitemeyer, T. & Osswald, S. J. (2010). Pers Sos Psychol. 98, 211-221. 
  3. Anderson, C.A. & Bushman, B. J. (2001). Effects of Violent Video Games on Aggressive Behavior, Aggressive Cognition, Aggressive Affect, Physiological Arousal, and Prosocial Behavior: A Meta-Analytic Review of the Scientific Literature. Vol. 12 no. 5 353-359. 
  4. Adam Bluestein (July 10, 2014). Will Doctors Soon Prescribe Videogames? (http://www.fastcompany.com/3032606/innovation-agents/play-two-and-call-me-in-the-morning-inside-the-emerging-science-of-videoga)