When my son was about 6 years old, we were shopping one day in a large department store when we walked by a section of demo video games. A group of 10-to 13-year-olds were intensely playing the games and my son was fascinated. I was one of “those parents” who didn’t allow any video games in the house. My son stopped to watch. Not wanting him to get too interested, and also being in a rush to get my shopping done, I said something like, “You don’t want to play video games. See, it’s scrambling their brains.” It’s one of the many nonsensical things that seemed to just come out of my mouth as a busy and distracted parent.
I started walking to the checkout lanes and then realized that my son hadn’t budged. But instead of staring intensely at a video game being played he was now staring at one of the boys playing the video games. “What are you doing?” I asked. My son turned to me and said thoughtfully, “He doesn’t look like his brains are scrambled.”
When my two children were growing up we never owned a game console, and I limited their video game time to “educational” games. My daughter never did become a huge fan of video games when she went away to college, but my son did and he still is.
Now, looking at the research, I realize I may have been wrong about video games.
Research shows that playing video games isn’t necessarily a bad thing. Training to play action video games increases the speed of perceptual processing and something called perceptual learning. It’s possible to train the senses—vision, hearing, motor skills—and improve their capabilities, especially with action games.
Brian Glass cites research studies showing that when people who are new to video games are taught how to play action games, they can process visual information faster as a result, even outside of the gaming context.
For many decades, it was assumed that the brain has the most flexibility and neurons at birth and that it’s basically downhill from there. There’s the old adage about not consuming too much alcohol, lest it kill the finite number of brain cells you have. Another theory stated that brain structures became more rigid over time—that as people got older, their brains couldn’t be rewired.
This has all turned out to be untrue. The adult brain has neuroplasticity—its neural structures change and keep changing and learning. The skills learned from video gaming are an example of neuroplasticity.
In addition to the perceptual learning that action video games provide, research shows that strategy games (think StarCraft) can also improve cognitive flexibility. Cognitive flexibility is the ability to coordinate four things:
- What you’re paying attention to
- What you’re thinking about
- What rules to use
- How to make a decision
The more cognitively flexible you are, the higher your intelligence and psychological health.
So take a break from work and go improve your cognitive flexibility!
Glass, Brian D., W. Todd Maddox, and Bradley C. Love. 2013. “Real-Time Strategy Game Training: Emergence of a Cognitive Flexibility Trait. PLOS One, 7:8(8):e70350. doi: 10.1371/journal.pone.0070350.
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