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The Top 10 Weird Children Of Video Games and Neuroscience
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The Top 10 Weird Children Of Video Games and Neuroscience

August 23, 2011 Article Start Previous Page 2 of 3 Next

4. No one at any major news outlet understands the third variable problem

You're probably familiar with the axiom "correlation does not equal causation." Roughly, this means that just because two events are correlated, one does not necessarily cause the other. The third variable problem is similar. For instance, if you graphed the number of swimming accidents and Popsicle sales over the course of a year, you'd see that more Popsicles tend to mean more accidents. The problem here is that we're not looking at a third variable -- the warm weather -- that is actually affecting the other two.

It seems obvious on paper that Popsicles don't cause swimming accidents. It becomes difficult, however, to put that knowledge into practice when you're working with incomplete information.

Consider one study about video games and attention problems in children. Say you follow a group of grade school boys and girls and ask their parents to provide detailed information about their video gaming habits. A year later you evaluate the children for attention problems, and sure enough, the gamers are worse off in school (a common outcome).

But can you say the games caused these children to develop attention problems? What about the reverse -- that kids who already find it hard to focus choose to play these games?

There are a multitude of potential "third variables" for these results: problems at school or home chasing the children to distraction, difficulties with socializing that lead them to choose games over peers, habits of inactivity that lead them to not just games, but TV, comics, movies... and there could be many others.

So despite this tantalizing evidence, the study never uses the word "cause" to describe the relationship between video games and attention problems (more accurate is "linked to" or "associated with"). To use the word "cause" or, God forbid, "prove" in this context, would be risking an academic career.

But that doesn't really make for a good headline, so instead we get things like this.

5. The Nintendo Wii is helping stroke victims regain limb use

If you were a stroke patient 10 years ago, you were lucky if you lived close to a hospital that had the necessary rehabilitation equipment -- and that stuff didn't come cheap. But things are different now: in a study published two years ago, a small group of stroke patients showed significant improvements to movement and coordination after two weeks of training with the Wii. And, perhaps more critically, all 16 of them said the Wii was comparable to, if not better than, conventional therapy -- with the added bonus of being enjoyable.

The study made the case for using Wii training in conjunction with conventional therapies, and even suggested a doctor could monitor the patient's progress electronically while they played in their own homes. This is a significant cause for hope -- stroke is the leading cause of long-term disability in the United States.

6. Your Mii avatar says more about you than you thought

It's not just physiotherapists who see the research potential of the Wii. In a study published last year, experimenters had a group of participants make avatars of themselves on the Mii Channel. Half the participants were asked to make an avatar that depicted them as accurately as possible, their "real self." The other half were asked to create an avatar that represented their ideal self, in terms of body weight, hair, features, etc.

The participants who created an idealized Mii felt far more attachment to their avatars while playing a game, which the study referred to as the "avatar-self connection." The avatar-self connection was measured by how much the player agreed or disagreed with statements like this: "I consider the Mii I created to be me (it reflects who I consider myself to be or the way that I want to present myself to others)."

Although the experimenters acknowledged a lot of limitations in their study, they seemed to find evidence for the idea of a "malleable self." That is, a perception of oneself that temporarily becomes more in tune with the avatar you're seeing on the screen.

7. People with schizophrenia experience fewer symptoms after playing video games

The term "schizophrenia" actually encompasses a broad spectrum of possible symptoms and deficits. People who have this disease may suffer from what are called "positive symptoms," which include delusions, hallucinations, and disorganized speech and thinking ("negative symptoms" refer to deficits of normal behavior). They may also suffer from side effects caused by antipsychotic medications, including slurred speech, slow thinking, and movement problems. As evidenced by that list, it is a difficult disease to treat.

But in the only study of its kind, scientists found that patients showed improvements in both their positive symptoms and side effects after eight weeks of video game play. Amazingly, it didn't seem to matter what kind of game they played -- internet gambling games, RPGs, strategy games, and shooting games were all used in the study. Yet this group of patients scored better in all symptoms compared to a control group of patients who spent their time watching TV and movies.

The fact that positive symptoms decreased, especially delusions, suggested that the way video games activate the frontal cortex was important (the frontal cortex is involved in planning, decision-making, and other high-level cognition tasks). The scientists also compared the effect of video games to cigarette smoking. Apparently smoking has long been known to mitigate the symptoms of schizophrenia by facilitating the release of dopamine in certain parts of the brain. The scientists then humbly suggested video games as a possible alternative.

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