In the last few decades there has been a rapid and profound change to the way people in industrialized countries interact with information and the world around them. We are now multi-media creatures. Children are more likely to spend time playing video games than playing ball.

It seems likely that this will have an effect on our brains, which is an adaptive organ especially when it comes to processing information. The question that has not yet been resolved definitively is whether or not these changes are a net positive or net negative.

A new study looking at the effect of playing video games on the gray matter of the brain suggests that the answer is – it depends. Prior research suggests that video-game players may derive a number of cognitive benefits from playing. The current researchers summarize these findings:

Action video game playing, in particular, has been shown to increase performance in cognitive tasks within several domains including visual attention, visual short-term memory, executive function and procedural learning abilities.

These findings are not surprising. The brain displays what is called plasticity – the ability to make new connections in response to specific activity. This can be significant enough to actually see an increase in the size of the part of the brain responsible for that function. For example, violin players will have increased gray matter in the part of the brain that controls the hand that works the frets. In fact the research on music is similar to the research on video games – those parts of the brain involved demonstrate plasticity.

The current researchers were looking at the hippocampus, which is part of the brain involved in short term memory and specifically spatial memory. They divided their subjects into those who tend to use a visual-spatial strategy while playing, and those who are more “response learners,” which relies on the reward system for procedural learning.

This division was not arbitrary. The hippocampus, as notes above, is involved in using a spatial strategy to navigate a video game environment. A separate structure in the brain, the caudate nucleus, is involved in the reward system and procedural learning. Interestingly, previous research has shown that in humans (and rodents) there is an inverse relationship between these two systems. If you increase the size of the hippocampus, you decrease the size of the caudate nucleus, and vice versa. The reason for this relationship is not clear, but research suggests that the optimal condition is to have a balance between the hippocampus and caudate.

The researchers also looked at two different types of games, first person shooters (like Call of Duty) and 3D platform games, like Super Mario 64. 3D platform games generally require a spatial strategy for playing, and unsurprisingly all players of these games showed an increase in the size of the hippocampus after 90 hours of play.

Players of first person shooter games could use either strategy, although 83% were response learners rather than spatial learners while playing these types of games. In those players who tended to be response learners playing first person shooter games resulted in a decrease in hippocampus size after 90 hours of play.

These results confirm what was previously suspected from prior research. First, it is another demonstration of use-dependent plasticity in the brain. Further, it supports a direct relationship between the types of activity in which people engage and increases or decreases in the respective parts of the brain. And finally it supports the inverse relationship between the hippocampus and caudate nucleus with regard to different learning strategies.

There are specific implications to this research beyond wonky neuroscience. Decreases in the size of the hippocampus are associated with a higher risk of psychiatric illness such as depression and PTSD, and also Alzheimer’s disease. Further, playing certain video games, as noted above, may have benefits for certain types of tasks. Playing video games, for example, improved the skills and outcomes of surgeons using laparoscopic techniques. So there are real-world implications at stake.

The bottom line of all of this is fortunately probably simple. The best advice remains – do stuff, do different kinds of stuff, and do new stuff. When you engage in any activity you are using your brain, and this will result in learning and plasticity. The brain responds to anything you do by reinforcing whatever connections and structures are necessary to do it.

Playing video games is therefore no different than anything else, it is just another type of activity. Playing a video game will increase whatever cognitive strategy you are using to play that game. Video games may have an advantage of having a rapid response because of the intensity of the interaction. They can also be tailored so that the difficulty increases as a player’s skill increases, so they can stay in the optimal range of difficulty for learning.

The potential disadvantage of video games is that they may encourage playing one type of game for many hours at the cost of other activity. This gets to the – do different kinds of stuff – recommendation. The old advice of everything in moderation seems to hold pretty well with this kind of neuroscience research. Engage in different kinds of activity, including different kinds of video games, and of course more physical activity. And try new things, which seem to be especially stimulating to the brain.

The result of engaging in a variety of cognitive activities and trying new things will be a decreased risk of mental illness and dementia. It will probably also be more fun and enjoyable.

Posted by Steven Novella

Founder and currently Executive Editor of Science-Based Medicine Steven Novella, MD is an academic clinical neurologist at the Yale University School of Medicine. He is also the president and co-founder of the New England Skeptical Society, the host and producer of the popular weekly science podcast, The Skeptics’ Guide to the Universe, and the author of the NeuroLogicaBlog, a daily blog that covers news and issues in neuroscience, but also general science, scientific skepticism, philosophy of science, critical thinking, and the intersection of science with the media and society. Dr. Novella also contributes every Sunday to The Rogues Gallery, the official blog of the SGU.