The Next 100 Things You Need To Know About People: #119 — Games Can Enhance Brain Flexibility

Picture of a video gameWhen my son was about six years old, we were shopping in Target. He saw a group of ten-to thirteen-year-olds playing video games on the demo machines, and was fascinated (video games were not part of his life at that time), so he 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. It’s scrambling their brains.” I started walking to the checkout lanes and then realized he hadn’t followed me. I turned back to where he was standing at the video game section and found him staring intently 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.”

I was pretty strict with my children about video games. We never owned a game console, and I limited their video game time to “educational” games. My daughter never did become a fan, but my son did when he went off to college and beyond.

Now, looking at the research, I realize I may have been wrong about games.

Games can increase perceptual learning — Some of you may be parents who appreciate gaming, and others may be parents like I was, who thought that games were not a good way for children to spend time. Research shows that playing games isn’t necessarily a bad thing. There are benefits: training in action games can increase 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.

When people play games, it can increase how quickly they’re able to process sensory stimuli. It can increase the ability to filter out extraneous sensory stimuli and focus on one perceptual channel.

Brian Glass (2013) cites research studies showing that when people who are new to games are taught how to play action games, they can process visual information faster as a result, even outside of the gaming context.

Even adults can create new neuron structures — 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. Along with this idea came the theory that brain structures become more rigid over time—that as people get older, their brains can’t be rewired. This has all turned out to be untrue. The adult brain has neuroplasticity—its neural structures can change and keep changing and learning. The skills learned from  gaming are an example of neuroplasticity.

Strategy games increase cognitive flexibility — In addition to the perceptual learning that action games provide, research shows that strategy games can also improve cognitive flexibility. Cognitive flexibility is the ability to coordinate four things:

  1. What you’re paying attention to
  2. What you’re thinking about
  3. What rules to use
  4. How to make a decision

The more cognitively flexible you are, the higher your intelligence and psychological health.

Cognitive flexibility is trainable — Glass took women who were not gamers and had them play games for an hour a day for forty days. One group played Sims 2, another played StarCraft with one base, and the third group played StarCraft with two bases at different locations. Cognitive flexibility was measured before and after the training. The two groups playing StarCraft raised their cognitive flexibility scores more than the group that played Sims 2. And the group that managed two bases increased even more than the group that managed one base.
What do you think? Have games improved your perceptual skills and/or cognitive flexibility?

Here’s the research reference:  Brian Glass, Real-Time Strategy Game Training: Emergence of a Cognitive Flexibility Trait, PLOS, August 7, 2013.

If you liked this article, and want more info like it, check out my newest book: 100 MORE Things Every Designer Needs To Know About People.

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