Video games, attention and memory

‘Cognitive Enhancement via Neuromodulation and Video Games: Synergistic Effects?’ is the name of the work of Catalan scientists. As a result, they concluded that participation in video games added to brain stimulation through transcranial magnetic stimulation (TMS) techniques improves the cognitive experience and the development of different skills.

People who played video games as children showed greater improvements in their working memory than those who did not.
People who played video games as children showed greater improvements in their working memory than those who did not.

By H. B. Ducasse, analyst.

We measure the time we spend with telephones, consoles, computers and screens in general. In societies increasingly mediated by technologies, the social, cultural and physical impacts that these produce are a recurring theme. But we’re only just starting to get some clues to the cognitive impact of video games on a massive scale. A study maintains that certain video games played at an early age can improve memory capacity and that this is reflected years later, especially in working life.

In previous articles, we have already mentioned the various uses of video games in education. We saw that they are utilized as a literacy tool and as support for the development of what we know as emotional intelligence. These are games that inspire you to read, to specialize in a subject, to develop empathic skills. Here we are going to focus on the connection between video games and memory, an area in which they could also be beneficial. At least, this is what supports the study that we report here. It is Cognitive Enhancement via Neuromodulation and Video Games: Synergistic Effects?, by Marc Palaus, Raquel Viejo-Sobera, Diego Redolar-Ripoll and Elena M. Marron, members of the Cognitive NeuroLab of the Faculty of Health Sciences, Universitat Oberta de Catalunya (UOC), Barcelona, ​​Spain. The work was published in Frontiers in Human Neuroscience magazine (June 2020 edition).

THE BRIGHT SIDE OF GAMING: MORE MEMORY, ATTENTION AND SKILL

The article tells the experience of this team of researchers from the UOC. They called in 27 volunteers to play Super Mario 64, which was already known to induce structural changes in parts of the brain associated with executive function and spatial memory. The scientists decided to combine the video game with transcranial magnetic stimulation (TMS), a non-invasive form of brain stimulation to treat mood disorders such as depression, approved in 2008 by the Food and Drug Administration (FDA). TMS also produces improvements in the cognitive system, including enhancing working memory. The 27 volunteers, with an average age of 29, participated in 10 training sessions with Super Mario. At the end of each session, TMS was applied to the prefrontal cortex. The combination of video games and TMS improved the experience exponentially.

Besides, researchers assessed a range of cognitive functions, including reaction time, working memory, attention span, visual-spatial skills, and problem solving, and found that participants with early video game experience had improved working memory. “People who had played games before adolescence, even if they no longer play, showed greater memory capacity to hold and mentally manipulate information to obtain results,” explains study author Dr. Marc Palaus. The results suggest that video games can induce cognitive changes that last for years after people have stopped playing. Palaus indicates that video games that provide motivation -making the player want to continue playing- and that, at the same time, add difficulties require an intensive use of brain resources, which makes them ideal for enhancing cognitive capacity. “They are a perfect recipe to strengthen our cognitive abilities, almost without realizing it,” he admits.

THE DARK SIDE OF GAMING: HIGHER RISK OF ADDICTION

Of course, that recipe is often associated with addiction disorders, revealed in several studies, including one that the same team conducted three years ago. Also led by Palaus, Viejo, Redolar and Elena Muñoz, the Catalan team discovered that video games cause structural changes in the brain, with the increase in the size of some regions, and functional changes, such as the activation of regions responsible for attention and visual-spatial skills. This research was built on 116 scientific studies on the matter and analyzed some of its characteristics. “Parts of the brain responsible for attention (especially, the frontoparietal regions) function in players more efficiently, as they need less activation to stay focused on demanding tasks,” Palaus noted. In parallel, works on this subject warned about the dangers of addiction. “It has been concluded that the areas involved in the brain’s reward system are altered in these cases in a similar way that they are in other addictions,” they said. At that time, several investigations also appeared that questioned the possibility of transferring the virtual experience to the real world, and that examined some aspects of the interfaces. “Players seem to have a difficult time staying focused on a task that doesn’t involve constant incoming stimuli. Their attention wavers,” maintained a report related to the current of the critic Nicholas Carr. In these dysfunctions, precisely, a sector of what we call responsible gambling is working on.

While positive and negative impacts continue to be measured, there is an undeniable and proactive tendency to build bridges between gaming and education, neurosciences, social processes and the world of work. Studies of the Open University of Catalonia highlight in the players some skills and facilities to represent, analyze and manipulate objects mentally. These are capacities to self-orient in a new environment, interpret a map, perform mental calculation operations and estimate distances between objects, among other actions. “This type of retention is essential for processes such as decision making and planning because it has the ability to keep in mind elements necessary to perform a task while it is being executed,” they say.

Thinking about the relationship with video games, their impacts, now that they are already part of some generations, of their history and collective memory, is an inalienable and exciting task. Knowing what happens to the brain, to our memory, with technological and civilizational change, what effects the screens have on our ability to remember, learn, conceptualize, are fundamental questions to anticipate the behaviors of new generations of players and consumers. For now, the answers are both ambiguous and encouraging. These issues will have to keep on being investigated.