Neuroscience Research Shows Why Video Games Make People 'Smarter, Better, And Faster'


Photo: Daphne Bavelier, TED

University Of Geneva Professor and cognitive neuroscientist Dr. Daphne Bavelier gave a fascinating TED talk this summer in Lausanne on her research on brain science and video games. People automatically assume that video games, particularly action-filled shooting games, have a negative effect on the mind. Dr. Bavelier’s lab actually puts those assumptions to the test.

She found that those who play action games (in moderation!) react faster and can focus better. The research has fascinating implications for how we can improve and train our brains, learn, and rehabilitate people.  

The full 18 minute video is available here and at the end of the slides.

We’ve broken out Dr. Bavelier’s key points below.  

Dr. Bavelier is a cognitive neuroscientist, and heads her own lab at the University of Geneva.

Dr. Bavelier is interested in how to make our brains smarter, better, faster, and stronger. She studies video games in that context.

People think video games are mostly played by children, but the average gamer is 33 years old, not 8.

Call of Duty: Black Ops was played for 68,000 years within a month of its release. Action games like this are pervasive.

Overindulging in anything is harmful, but action-packed shooter games can have powerful, positive effects on behaviour.

There are many sensationalist headlines about whether games are good or bad. Dr. Bavelier focuses instead on those things you can test quantitatively in the lab.

For example, the common idea that too much screen time makes your eyesight worse is wrong.

People that play 5, 10, or 15 hours of these games a week actually have better vision.

Gamers are better at resolving small details in clutter, like on a prescription bottle. They're also better at distinguishing between different levels of grey, like when driving in fog.

But they're more prone to distraction and have shorter attention spans, right?

Dr. Bavelier also tested the audience on their ability to track multiple objects — she moved a few blue objects in a sea of yellow ones.

A typical young adult can track 3 to 4 objects. An action gamer? 6 to 7.

Dr. Bavelier's lab uses imaging to see how action games change the brain itself, in addition to people's behaviour. They've found an effect in three parts of the brain.

The parietal lobe, which focuses attention on individual tasks.

The frontal lobe, which helps us keep our attention focused on a particular object or task.

And the anterior cingulate, which helps control what we pay attention to, and helps resolve conflicts like that between the colour and meaning of a word.

Dr. Bavelier's lab has found that all three networks are more efficient in those that play action games. They affect 'brain plasticity:' the ability of the nervous system to change its structure.

Technology creates opportunities for multi tasking, and action gamers are much faster at changing tasks, paying a lower neurological cost for the switch.

'Multimedia-taskers,' those that listen to music or chat while working or switch between devices rapidly have been found by Stanford research to be 'abysmal' multi-taskers.

There's something unique about these games versus other media. Gamers multi-task better, and those 'multimedia-taskers' are convinced they excel at it until the see their results.

Too much wine, or too many video games, are bad. But there are ingredients in wine (in moderation) that increase longevity. Dr. Bavelier's lab is trying to find those 'ingredients' in video games.

That's how we can create something useful for rehabilitation or education.

The lab is actually starting training studies; measuring people on a difficult mental task before and after they train on action games.

They improve significantly over time, and the effect is persistent.

The issue is that scientists are interested in what Dr. Bavelier calls the 'broccoli:' the positive ingredients in games that have these good effects.

Game designers are producing 'chocolate:' addictive products you can't resist.

No one wants to eat chocolate covered broccoli. Scientists and designers need to, and are starting to work together to combine the two.

Watch Daphne Bavelier's TED talk here

Now check out another great TED Talk from Amy Cuddy

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