By Celine Teh
Guess what people do when they collectively spend three billion hours per week worldwide? Playing video games, and this number is growing tremendously. Average young adults are predicted to play around 10000 hours of games by age 21, yet excessive gaming before this age threshold can physically rewire the brain.
What is Neuroplasticity?
When we say “rewires the brain”, it means to change the neuroplasticity of the brain. Neuroplasticity is an umbrella term of the brain’s ability to adapt, reorganize, and change through experience. Imagine your brain like an elastic road network. Information travels around your brain like vehicles, but they have different routes to choose from. There are two types of neuroplasticity: structural and functional neuroplasticity. Structural plasticity changes the strength of neuron connection, more information decides to go route A instead of route B, so route A expands while route B shrinks. Functional neuroplasticity changes the neuron connection permanently, such as route C being established as a new pathway.
CAPTION: Synapses (gaps) between neurons form new connections/strengthen after an experience, causing structural changes in the brain and therefore changes how you think and act. (Researchgate.net)
Neuroplasticity allows us to learn more effectively with better memory and cognitive abilities, recover the brain from traumas and physical damages, and learn to see the world in three-dimensional with binocular vision. It changes with age, where structural and functional changes predominantly take place in children and young adults.
Effects on Cognitive Ability
Effects on cognitive ability vary depending on the video game.
A study published in 2013 discovered playing Super Mario 64 significantly increases gray matter (tissues that process information in the brain) in the hippocampus (a part of the brain that deals with spatial processing and navigation), while a 2018 study shows that first-person shooting games reduce gray matter in the hippocampus. This was later explained that players in Super Mario have to rely on the hippocampus for spatial memory, while players in shooting games use non-spatial memory strategies when they navigate. The less you use the hippocampus, the more cells and atrophies are lost.
CAPTION: The figure on the left is from the 2013 study, Super Mario 64, while the figure on the right is from the 2018 study, Call of Duty.
Other cognitive abilities include enhanced visual perception, such as being able to tell between subtle differences among colors or shifting attention automatically and swiftly from the center to the periphery of the computer screen. Some literature also shows that gaming improves several types of attention, for instance, divided attention for multi-tasking, and sustained attention for long periods of intense focus. Video games played on special devices, like driving and boxing games, creates a feedback loop between the player’s control and the change in the virtual world, thus increasing hand-eye coordination.
CAPTION: This is a table from a review in PMC that summarizes the beneficial effects of different types of video games from several studies.
Addiction and Internet Gaming Disorder
Video games rewire the brain for immediate response and instant gratification. For example, firing a weapon that head-shots an enemy in an action game will give you a sense of pleasure. This sense of pleasure is a result of a rush of dopamine, the “feel-good” neurotransmitter, due to the reward system.
Dopamine plays an important role in our behavior and thinking, but flooding the brain with excessive dopamine will lower the sensitivity of our ability to feel pleasure, so we have to play even more games to fulfill our needs. This is somewhat similar to addiction, and Internet Gaming Disorder is indeed recognized by the WHO and health centers worldwide. Addictive gamers show impaired control over gaming, make games prioritized over anything else, and continue to play games despite negative consequences in real life (e.g. failing in academics, neglecting family and friends). They also show withdrawal symptoms and aggression.
CAPTION: Gaming, an original form of entertainment, is pervasively turning into an addiction. (Quartz.com)
The prefrontal cortex is located at the front of our brain and is associated with impulse control, decision making, planning, and personality development. It is not fully accomplished before 25, thus it is susceptible to change in adolescence. Superfluous dopamine during this period can cause the underdeveloped frontal lobe to shrink, leading to symptoms such as anxiety, even more aggression, and increased moodiness.
Video games can be beneficial or detrimental, depending on their nature and the amount of time you spend on them. This technology is inevitably escalating, stepping into arts, medical care, education, and other fields, therefore it is important to understand how they could impact our brain. It is OK to play games, but managing your time and prioritizing activities are even more important, because there is so much more in life to explore.
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