How video games may change our brain

An average 150 million people in the United States play video games at least three hours a week. Of these, 72% comprise 18-year-old gamers or older. It comes of no surprise, then, that video games sales continue to increase every year. 

Yet, despite sales growth, some video game genres, including first-person shooter and action-adventure titles, have remained controversial. Games of this kind have been criticized as being a source of violence and addiction (even though scientists have not been able to find a causal link).

Could it be that video games are a reason for serious concern? We take a look at the validity of such a claim and explore any benefits that could indeed be associated with playing video games. 

The effects of video games on our brain: size and function 

A team of scientists have recently collected 116 research studies analyzing the relationship between video games and changes in the brain.

As they highlighted, video games do not only affect our performance but the structure of our brain as well. For example, certain regions of gamers’ brain that are involved in attention require less activation to stay focused on demanding tasks. Similarly, size of areas appointed to identify visual and spatial relationship between objects, also known as visuospatial skills, increases.

Yet, there is a dark side to the interactive pastime. Video games can be addictive and result in “internet gaming disorder.”

The effects of video games on our brain: Potential brain-training tool?

Despite the negative possibility of an addiction, could video games help train the brain if used correctly?

Well, according to a team of researchers from the Florida State University, skills that improved with brain training games were not easily transferable. Benefits from video games that trained working memory were limited and did not improve memory loss or cognitive disorders in real life. As psychology professor Neil Charness stated, the best way to enhance cognitive function is through physical exercise, especially aerobic activity.

But not all hope is lost.

Indeed, another study from the University of California-San Francisco (UCSF) showed that a specially designed 3D video game did better cognitive performance and minimize brain decline in the elderly. 

Specifically, researchers discovered that 12 hours of training in one month strengthened working memory (by 12%) and sustained attention of participants aged between 60 and 85 years; a 6-month follow-up indicated outcome retention, too. 

An arguable explanation for this difference was the lack of spatial and complex information provided by 2D video games. 3D video games engaged the hippocampus much more to confer favorable results.  

If we extrapolate these results to populations with diseases like Alzheimer’s and dementia, 3D video games that are specially designed could prove pivotal. 

Nevertheless, in spite of some potential for health benefits, the effects of video games on our brain warrants further studies. Experts agree that physical training is essential should individuals want to heighten and reinforce cognitive abilities, brain function and structure.

In Virtualtimes, we are analyzing and studying the sense and structure of time by generating a flow state with the use of VR gaming. The experience of time can be distorted due to certain psychopathological conditions. Funded by the European Union, this project aims to provide individuals with opportunities to re-experience and normalize a variant and distorted sense of time.

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