Research to date suggests that playing video games can change the brain regions responsible for attention and visuospatial skills and make them more efficient. The average age of gamers was 35 in 2016.
Palaus and his colleagues collected the results from 116 scientific studies, (the findings of their review were published in Frontiers in Human Neuroscience), 22 of which looked at structural changes in the brain and 100 of which looked at changes in brain functionality and/or behavior. “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,” explains Palaus.
Your brain during gaming involves brain regions related to attention and these regions are more efficient in gamers and require less activation to sustain attention on demanding tasks. There is also evidence that video games can increase the size and efficiency of brain regions related to visuospatial skills. For example, the right hippocampus was enlarged in both long-term gamers and volunteers following a video game training program.
Positive benefits of online gaming
At a glance, more than 150 million people in the United States play video games regularly, or for at least 3 hours per week. The average American gamer is a 35-year-old adult, with 72 percent of gamers aged 18 or older. For video game use by children, most parents – 71 percent – indicate that video games have a positive influence on their child’s life.
Researchers have discovered that video gaming can be addictive – a phenomenon known as “Internet gaming disorder.”First-person shooter and action genres often stand accused of stirring aggression and causing violence and addiction.
In gaming addicts, there are functional and structural alterations in the neural reward system – a group of structures associated with feeling pleasure, learning, and motivation. Exposing video game addicts to game-related cues that cause cravings, and monitoring their brain responses, highlighted these changes – changes that are also seen in other addictive disorders.
“Playing video games floods the pleasure center of the brain with dopamine,” says David Greenfield, Ph.D., founder of The Center for Internet and Technology Addiction and assistant clinical professor of psychiatry at the University of Connecticut School of Medicine. That gives gamers a rush—but only temporarily, he explains. With all that extra dopamine lurking around, the brain during gaming gets the message to produce less of this critical neurotransmitter. The end result: your brain during gaming can end up with a diminished supply of dopamine.
Take a game like that away from addicted adolescents and they often show behavioral problems, withdrawal symptoms, even aggression, according to Dr. Greenfield.
A team of researchers from the Florida State University however, has stated that people should be skeptical of adverts that promote an increase in the performance of the brain that results from brain training games. They have said that science does not support these claims.
Does gaming make the brain more effective?
“Our findings and previous studies confirm there’s very little evidence these types of games can improve your life in a meaningful way,” says Wally Boot, associate professor of psychology, an expert on age-related cognitive decline.
People are increasingly under the impression that brain-training apps will safeguard them against memory loss or cognitive disorders.
Researchers tested whether playing brain-training games enhanced the working memory of players and thus improved other cognitive abilities, including reasoning, memory, and processing speed – a process scientists call “far transfer.” However, this was not the case.
“But these skills tend to be very specific and not show a lot of transfer. The thing that seniors, in particular, should be concerned about is, if I can get very good at crossword puzzles, is that going to help me remember where my keys are? And the answer is probably no,” he adds.
Charness points out that if your goal is to improve cognitive function in your brain during gaming, then aerobic exercise may help. Some research has found that aerobic activity rather than mental activity enhances the brain.
Practicing anything repetitively physically changes the brain. With time and effort, you get better at the specific task you’re practicing, whether it’s shooting at the enemy in a video game or hitting a baseball. Those repetitive actions and thoughts stimulate connections between brain cells, creating neural pathways between different parts of your brain. The more you practice a certain activity, the stronger that neural pathway becomes. That’s the structural basis of learning.
“Use it or lose it” applies not just to muscles in the body, but also the brain. Neural pathways that are not used eventually get pruned in your brain during gaming.
The negative effects of online gaming
The problem: many researchers believe that excessive gaming before age 21 or 22 can physically rewire the brain. Researchers in China, for example, performed magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) studies on the brains of 18 college students who spent an average of 10 hours a day online, primarily playing games like World of Warcraft. Compared with a control group who spent less than two hours a day online, gamers had less gray matter (the thinking part of the brain).
As far back as the early 1990s, scientists warned that because video games only stimulate brain regions that control vision and movement, other parts of the mind responsible for behavior, emotion, and learning could become underdeveloped. Your brain during gaming increases activity in only certain parts of your brain.
A study published in the scientific journal Nature in 1998 showed that the feel-good neurotransmitter dopamine is released in your brain during gaming. The amount of dopamine released while playing video games was similar to what is seen after intravenous injection of the stimulant drugs amphetamine or methylphenidate.
Experts agree gaming has addictive qualities. The human brain is wired to crave instant gratification, fast pace, and unpredictability. All three are satisfied in video games.
Violent video games
Violent video games are of concern to many experts. In a study of 45 adolescents, playing violent video games for only 30 minutes immediately lowered activity in the prefrontal regions of the brain compared to those who participated in a non-violent game. Previous research showed that just 10–20 minutes of violent gaming increased activity in the brain regions associated with arousal, anxiety, and emotional reaction, while simultaneously reducing activity in the frontal lobes associated with emotion regulation and executive control.
The dopamine release that comes from gaming is so powerful, say researchers, it can almost shut the prefrontal regions down. That’s one reason why gamers like Rosner can play for 18 hours straight. “Kids plop themselves in front of a computer and they’ll stay there for 8, 10, 25, 36 hours,” says Dr. Greenfield.
The bottom line
Everything in moderation is the key concept. Online gaming can improve attention and focus and may enable an adolescent to gain confidence in a world where young people 9especially males) struggle to find their place and feel resistant to becoming an adult and taking on responsibilities. It’s very desirable to escape to a fantasy world where you can be anything. The real world is far tougher.
When online gaming becomes a place of solace and self-care becomes neglected, socialising is limited and a person’s life goals become impossible to achieve – this is the time to regain control. Your brain during gaming can be physically restructured. It’s all too easy for gaming to become an escape from real life but this behaviour leads to avoidance and lowered confidence in the long run. Educate your children and those you care about on the danger of using gaming as an escape instead of a fun activity within limits.