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[Plenty of studies are being done which examine the effect gaming has on the brain, and independent developer and former neuroscience researcher Erin Robinson takes a look at ten particularly interesting studies to see what they can teach us. You can follow Erin's work at Livelyivy.com, or on Twitter @Livelyivy.]
When I was in high school I had a psychology teacher we called "Max." On the day we were about to start learning about the human brain Max paused, closed the textbook, and said something that determined the next few years of my life. "If I could do it all again," he said, "I'd go and study the brain. Neuroscience is at the same place physics and chemistry were at a hundred years ago -- on the brink of all the big discoveries."
It stayed with me -- I got my degree in psychology and spent some time working in neuroscience labs before video games reclaimed my life.
I was invited to speak at GDC China last year about the intersection of neuroscience and gaming. I tracked down almost 60 contemporary research papers and handpicked the ones stood out to me in terms of their innovation and creativity. Here are 10 things we didn't know before.
1. People with no memory can remember playing Tetris
You may be surprised to learn that scientists are not only studying the effects of video games on the brain -- they are using games to help unravel how the brain works.
Consider anterograde amnesiacs, the unfortunate lot who have lost the ability to form new memories due to brain damage. It's the kind of amnesia suffered by the main character in the movie Memento, who lives in an ever-updating present, unable to remember anything that happened after his traumatic accident.
And yet, people with this type of amnesia can learn to play Tetris just fine, and even get better with practice (although not as well as people without brain injury). And it gets weirder. Have you ever spent a lot of time doing something repetitive, particularly something new, and then tried to fall asleep? Have you noticed the intrusion of visual images related to what you were just doing? Those are called hypnagogic images, and you guessed it, the amnesiac patients still saw things that looked like Tetris blocks despite having no recollection of playing the game.
This is the latest bit of evidence to suggest that there are separate memory pathways in the brain: explicit memories, which are the people, places, and experiences we remember, and procedural memories, which are the skills we learn with practice. And it's possible to suffer damage to one pathway and not lose the other.
By the way, becoming obsessed with an activity to the point that it begins to intrude your thoughts, mental images, and dreams is known as the "Tetris Effect." So that's something else video games have given us.
2. You can use the same drug to treat a heroin addiction and a StarCraft addiction
It turns out that gaming overusers share some brain characteristics with drug addicts. In a recent PET scan study, the brains of internet gaming overusers were compared to their non-gaming counterparts.
The gaming overusers showed abnormal activity in regions linked to impulse control and reward processing.
A main feature of this disordered thinking is the inability to resist the impulse to perform an action, despite its harm to oneself and others. It's commonly seen in not only drug addiction, but other disorders of impulse control like compulsive gambling.
So if the brain of a compulsive gamer functions like an addict's, can we treat gaming overuse like we would an addiction? One group of scientists decided to try it out. Bupropion, a drug commonly given to heroin addicts to cut their cravings, was given to a group of gamers who were excessively playing (what else?) StarCraft. The unhealthy level of StarCraft was defined as more than 30 hours per week.
The result: the drug helped. After six weeks, the patients had lower cravings for internet game play, less total game play time, and fewer symptoms of depression. Additionally, when the patients were shown images from StarCraft during an MRI scan, they showed less activation in the brain areas related to craving. The drug acts by inhibiting the reuptake of dopamine and norepinephrine, both involved in the processing of rewards. In other words, your cells stay happier longer, perhaps enough to fight off the impulse temporarily.
3. Child burn victims feel less pain when playing a VR game
We're all familiar with games as escapism, but there is now solid evidence that video games can also modulate the effects of real, physical pain.
One study looked at the pain experienced by pediatric burn patients during a particularly grueling process: the changing of their dressings. The usual treatment for these patients involved a strong painkiller, but these tended to have unwanted side effects like nausea and lethargy.
Then someone had the brilliant idea to have these kids play a virtual reality game (helmet and all) during the process. Not only did the children report significantly less pain, but they also felt fewer of the negative side effects of the painkillers (their nurses provided similar reports).
It is thought that the VR games interrupt and distract the way that current thoughts, including pain, are processed by the brain. The mechanisms for that process aren't clear, but VR games seem to at least reduce the perception of pain. While this study only looked at nine children, the results are similar to what they've found in adults. My takeaway: I cannot believe somebody found a use for VR helmets.