This is what your brain looks like on Super Mario Mushrooms



Having trouble making quick decisions among multiple options in the real world? When to go for the goal and when to pass? Strategically planning a sport move or which questions to answer first on a timed exam?

You might consider an unlikely pastime – playing video games.

Especially video games that are cognitively taxing and that require planned moves in virtual physical environments.

In a study published in PloS One in March, Simone Kuhn and colleagues found a positive association between cortical thickness and hours of video games played per week by 14-year olds. The researchers combined a questionnaire about video gaming behavior with MRI imaging of participants’ brains. They then used multiple linear regression to predict cortical thickness – as measured in MRI scans – using video gaming hours per week as the main predictor. The regression models controlled for sex, age and education of the participant’s parents.

Kuhn and colleagues found cortical thickness to be significantly larger among participants who naturally played more hours of video games per week (the average being 12.6 hours per week of video game play) in these areas of the brain:

PloS One. doi:10.1371/journal.pone.0091506.g001.

PloS One. doi:10.1371/journal.pone.0091506.g001.

[The study has 13,898 views but hasn’t been cited by other articles yet.]

Cortical thickness is associated with normal aging, cognitive performance and mental disorders. Kuhn and colleagues found specifically that more hours of video game play was positively associated with greater cortical thickness in two areas of the brain: the left dorsolateral prefrontal cortex (DLPFC) and the left frontal eye fields. The DLPFC, in the frontal lobe of the brain, helps in executive cognitive functions including working memory, reasoning, task flexibility and problem solving as well as strategic planning – essential cognitive domains for great video gaming. In other words, your DLPFC helps you make decision goals and consider options in decision making tasks.

This study builds upon a previous study by Kuhn and colleagues in Nature Molecular Psychiatry showing that video game training – specifically training participants to play Super Mario 64, increased grey matter volume in the right DLPFC. The right DLPFC is prominently activated during memory-based decision-making. Amy Reichelt wrote more about that study at The Conversation:

In addition, brain volume increases were greater in the subjects who reported really enjoying playing Mario 64 and found the experience rewarding. This indicates that activation of the reward system, which leads to dopamine release, could facilitate the neuroplasticity process.

And Kuhn and colleagues aren't the only ones showing positive cognitive effects of video game activity. An experiment by Lovden and colleagues in 2012 even showed that playing a virtual environment computer game on a regular basis for a period of several months could prevent age-related decline in the size (volume) of the hippocampus.

Of course, researchers have subsequently pointed out that claims of cognitive improvements as a function of playing video games need to be more rigorously tested in experimental, even clinical settings. The 2014 Kuhn study showing cortical thickening among avid video game players, for instance, is correlational and does not provide a case for cause and effect. Positive effects of playing video games also likely depend highly on the type of game played, the area of the brain measured and the aspects of gameplay involved (spatial problem-solving, etc.) In other words, it is very probably that all games are not created equal when it comes to cognitive gains. Placebo effects must also be ruled out, as enjoyment of playing video games could be facilitating the positive effects researchers are seeing on cognition.

But if we can take one thing away from this collection of research, it’s that we can no longer threaten our children with phrases like “playing too much of that Mario game will rot your brain!”

Do you play video games? Have you experienced any positive effects of gameplay? 

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One Response to “This is what your brain looks like on Super Mario Mushrooms”

  1. Chris Gianacas Reply | Permalink

    There was a period of my life that I was managing a team of about 30 IT professionals at the same time as running a MMORPG guild of also about 30. There is no doubt in my mind that both experiences helped each other. Indeed, in some ways running the guild was actually much harder than running the team because people were doing it for fun only (not money) so empathy and persuasion became particularly critical.

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