Brain power-up: Playing video games enhances decision making, improves cognition

Neuroscience researchers are challenging the widespread notion that video games are just mindless activities to pass time. A study out of Georgia State University concludes that avid gamers show enhanced brain activity along with a better hold on decision-making.

Tim Jordan, lead author of this research, had weak vision during childhood. As part of a study at age 5, he was instructed to cover his strong eye and play video games to strengthen the other. He now credits video games for taking him from legally blind to having strong vision, and for his success in academia. Jordan now has a Ph.D. in physics and astronomy, and is a postdoctoral researcher at the University of California, Los Angeles.

As can be expected, his personal experience has also inspired his latest work. Jordan and his team have found that although it’s incredibly common for kids and adolescents to play video games, the advantages that it may pose for decision-making and the brain aren’t well-studied. “Video games are played by the overwhelming majority of our youth more than three hours every week, but the beneficial effects on decision-making abilities and the brain are not exactly known,” says lead researcher Mukesh Dhamala, associate professor in Georgia State’s Department of Physics and Astronomy and its Neuroscience Institute. “Our work provides some answers on that.”

The project included 47 college-age participants, with 28 being avid game players and 19 being non-players. Using functional magnetic resonance imaging (FMRI), the students laid in a machine with a mirror that made it possible to see a cue followed by a display of moving dots. They were asked to press a button in their right or left hand to indicate the direction of the dots, or resist pressing either button if there was no movement.

Researchers report that the frequent video game players moved faster and with more accuracy than the non-players. The results of the brain scan showed that this may be due to enhanced brain activity in certain regions of it.

“These results indicate that video game playing potentially enhances several of the subprocesses for sensation, perception and mapping to action to improve decision-making skills,” the authors write. “These findings begin to illuminate how video game playing alters the brain in order to improve task performance and their potential implications for increasing task-specific activity.”

From their analysis, they conclude that this work has potential to make people see video games in a new light. They hope that video games will be more seriously considered as a useful tool for cognition and decision-making. Since their work provides a preliminary framework, the researchers hope that this prompts others to use it as a basis and expand on it.

“While these studies show that video game playing has cognitive benefits for certain tasks and that video game playing can be used to train a person to perform better, video game playing has also been associated with negative effects,” the authors note. “Video game playing in excess can lead to behavioral symptoms in players similar to other addictive disorders such as withdrawal, inability to restrain themselves from the activity and inability to fully engage in everyday activities. However, when played in moderation, video games can lead to beneficial effects.”

This study is published in the journal Neuroimage: Reports.

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About the Author

Shyla Cadogan

Shyla Cadogan is a recent graduate from the University of Maryland, College Park with a Bachelor’s of Science in Nutrition and Food Science. She is on her way to becoming a Registered Dietitian, with next steps being completion of a dietetic internship at the University of Maryland Medical Center. Shyla has extensive research experience in food composition analysis and food resource management.

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