It’s the dead of night and your imagination is filled with strange 8-bit Russian music and falling Tetris blocks. You have to question: What are those video games doing to my brain?
A new meta-study, published in the journal Frontiers in Human Neuroscience, outlines how playing video games can alter the way your brain performs.
Researchers drew on evidence from 116 separate scientific studies, including 22 that looked at structural changes to the brain. Among the selection of studies, a third investigated video game addiction and around 14 percent of them focused on the effect of violence and video games.
"Games have sometimes been praised or demonized, often without real data backing up those claims," Marc Palaus, first author on the review, said in a statement. "Moreover, gaming is a popular activity, so everyone seems to have strong opinions on the topic."
They found that gaming changes the structural connectivity “in virtually all parts of the brain,” such as in fibers connecting to the visual, temporal, and prefrontal cortices, as well as the hippocampus, the thalamus, and fibers connecting the basal ganglia.
One of the most researched areas was the effect of video games on attention. The overall conclusion was that gamers actually show an improvement in several forms of attention, such as sustained attention or selective attention. It was also discovered that hardcore gamers require less activation to sustain long sessions of attention on demanding tasks.
Their summary found that video games can increase the size and efficiency of brain regions related to visuospatial abilities, which are the skills we use to navigate and perceive where objects are in relation to each other. Both long-term gamers and volunteers were shown to have an enlarged right hippocampus following a video game training program.
However, it wasn’t completely rosy. Video games are designed to get your reward system pumping with dopamine, but they found excessive gaming actually alters the way we process rewards, both functionally and structurally. The neural changes were effectively the same as those seen in people addicted to gambling and drugs, which explains why some become obsessed with video games or even experience withdrawal symptoms and cravings.
- "We focused on how the brain reacts to video game exposure, but these effects do not always translate to real-life changes," says Palaus. "It's likely that video games have both positive (on attention, visual, and motor skills) and negative aspects (risk of addiction), and it is essential we embrace this complexity."