Playing Video Games Could Actually Change Your Brain—But Not in a Bad Way

Despite video games’ bad rep, they might improve a person’s strategizing and multi-tasking abilities

Photo: Patrick Brosset

Parents tend to be wary of video games due to their violence-prone plot lines and media stories that they might dumb kids down. But a new study—one of the few that has looked at the physical effects of playing video games rather than the behavioral ones—indicates that the games might actually give kids a cognitive edge. The authors found "a robust positive association between cortical thickness and video gaming duration," which could point toward "the biological basis of previously reported cognitive improvements due to video game play."  

The researchers recruited around 150 male and female 14-year-olds to take part in the study. On average, the group played about 12 hours of video games per week, although that figure varied between individuals. The team found that those teens who invested the most time in their games also had thicker cortical matter in two areas of their brain. Here's Forbes on what those findings imply: 

The prefrontal cortex is often referred to as our brain’s command and control center. It’s where higher order thinking takes place, like decision-making and self-control.  Previous research has shown that the DLPFC plays a big part in how we process complex decisions, particularly those that involve weighing options that include achieving short-term objectives with long-term implications. It’s also where we make use of our brain’s working memory resources – the information we keep “top of mind” for quick access when making a decision.

The FEF is a brain area central to how we process visual-motor information and make judgments about how to handle external stimuli. It’s also important in decision-making because it allows us to efficiently figure out what sort of reaction best suits what’s happening around us. The term “hand-eye coordination” is part of this process.

If these two areas are more well-developed, then it might mean a person does better at multi-tasking and making decisions. 

While these findings are still in the realm of correlation rather than causation, the authors point out that there is a strong likelihood that "gaming is sort of like weight lifting for the brain," Forbes writes. And as Wired UK points out, other studies have found that people who play video games tend to be better at responding to sensory stimuli than those who do not, and that novice players who spend about 50 hours devoted to an action game (not in one sitting) can quickly develop these real-world skills. 

The authors also think their research might help explain other recent studies have "associated frequent video game playing with improvements in cognitive functions." But they admit that more studies are needed to make a completely convincing case that video games really are harmless—and even cognitively productive—sources of entertainment. 

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