Interview with researcher Simone Kuhn about video games and the brain

A while ago, we published an article about a study which showed that playing video games improves spatial orientation, memory formation and strategic planning. You can read our article here and the full study on Nature, but here’s the gist of it: researchers made subjects play Super Mario 64 for 30 mintues a day over a period of 2 months, then studied their brains with MRIs and found increases of gray matter in the right hippocampus, right prefrontal cortex and the cerebellum – areas responsible for complex functions such as memory formation, strategic planning, spatial navigation, and fine skill hands.

Simone Kuhn, senior scientist at the Center for Lifespan Psychology at the Max Planck Institute for Human Development, was the lead researcher for this study. Her main areas of focus are structural and functional neuroimaging, brain plasticity and quantitative meta-analysis. Thankfully, she was kind enough to take the time to answer a few questions for us, which we present here.

Q: You’ve recently published 2 papers on the benefits of playing computer games, what drew your attention towards this particular topic?

A: Since I do not play video games myself I was very much fascinated how engaged children and adolescents can get when playing video games. Moreover I talked to a couple of adults who also seemed highly fascinated by video games, and this sparked my curiosity.
Q: You wrote that playing computer games can be associated with the growth of certain areas of the brain. Why and how exactly does this happen? Does the type of game you play have an impact on this growth?
A: Plasticity processes in the brain have been shown in response to different kind of training interventions, and thinks that people do. E.g. Taxi drivers have shown to develop more grey matter in the hippocampus when learning the map of London to pass the taxi driver exam.
How exactly these processes emerge is not completely known. Magnetic resonance imaging offers the possibility to measure gross changes, what exactly changes, whether more cells emerge, or whether the existing cells grow etc. is unclear.
In our training study, in which participants played the game Super Mario 64 we found that the more the hippocampus volume increased, the better participants became in a navigation task. This means the observed brain structural changes were accompanied by changes of behaviour.
Q: I think that the gaming training sessions you conducted for your reason are pretty different from how the average person plays a game. How would you estimate the effects on the brain are on the average gamers, compared to the ones you got in the lab?
A: In our study the training did not differ much from what one would do at home. In fact the participants received a console and the game Super Mario 64 and we asked them to play at least 30 min a day. At home and whenever it suited them best.
Q: Thought experiment time – you are the president of a commission which gets to regulate computer games developed throughout the world. What kind of games/tendencies do you try to encourage, which ones do you try to leave out?
A: Unfortunately we only conducted one study so far in which we observed the above mentioned structural changes in the brain when participants played Super Mario 64. Strictly speaking we can therefore only say something about this specific game. We assume that in particular the fact that participants had to navigate freely in a 3D like space and the fact that the game involves two views, namely a third-person view and a map like view from above which the player learns to integrate, may have driven the effect.
Following this logic games should be promoted that involve exploring a new environment. But we are planning a new study in which we aim at testing a violent video game and a so called social game to address the question what effects video games can have on social-affective behaviour.
Again, our deepest thanks to Simone for taking the time to shed light on these issues!
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About Mihai Andrei

Andrei's background is in geophysics, and he's been fascinated by it ever since he was a child. Feeling that there is a gap between scientists and the general audience, he started ZME Science -- and the results are what you see today.

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  1. Pingback: La verdad sobre la influencia de los videojuegos | valores éticos

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