In my last post, I discussed a debate that is going on over whether using the internet is good or bad for the brain. Those who argue against apparently harmful effects of the internet often cite studies that suggest playing video games actually enhances certain cognitive abilities. How compelling is the evidence for these purported benefits?
Well if you search the research literature, you will find a large number of studies (some in very high-impact journals) suggesting that regular video game players indeed have demonstrated a number of cognitive benefits relative to non-video game players. These include improved eye-hand coordination, visual attention, spatial abilities, visual acuity, and ability to simultaneously track multiple moving visual items. Moreover, some studies suggest that when non-video game players are trained with action video games for a relatively short period of time, they show a gain in some of the aforementioned cognitive functions.
Let’s take a look at a recent study that examined the possibility of yet another cognitive benefit for video game players. Sarah Donohue and colleagues at Duke University assessed whether gamers demonstrate enhanced ‘multisensory processing abilities,’ which can be explained as abilities to properly integrate information from more than one sense. For example, if you’ve ever watched a badly dubbed movie in which the sound is misaligned with the video, you’ve experienced a conflict between vision and audition. What Donohue and the researchers essentially asked is: are action video game players better at identifying these sorts of multisensory conflicts than non-video game players?
The subjects in this study were all male, as the researchers had a difficult time finding females with extensive gaming experience. 18 young adults who regularly play video games such as first-person shooters, real-time strategy and sports games were compared to 18 individuals who don’t play video games at all on a test of visual-auditory multisensory processing abilities. By presenting visual and auditory stimuli either in synchrony or offset in time on a computer screen and speakers, it was found that gamers were better at identifying when sounds and pictures were presented in synchrony or asynchrony. Subjects who played the most video games scored the best on these tests.
The findings make sense, as in video games such as first-person shooters, players integrate auditory cues with visual cues to make sure they don’t get shot when they turn a corner. I would guess that gamers who play with high-quality sound and graphic systems would enjoy exaggerated benefits of these kinds.
This study has added to the growing body of literature on positive cognitive effects of video games. So perhaps technology is not all bad for the brain. This is not to suggest that video games are purely good for you, and the more you play the better off you are in life. But we at least have evidence that all those hours of game time are not necessarily a complete waste. Now if only people started doing similar studies on avid internet users versus non-internet users (there are some studies on this, but they are notoriously few in quantity)...
As for video games, the take-home message is clear: we should all be spending more money on better televisions, graphic cards, video game systems, and sound systems, and we should be encouraging girls to join in and reap the cognitive benefits.
Donohue SE, Woldorff MG, & Mitroff SR (2010). Video game players show more precise multisensory temporal processing abilities. Attention, perception & psychophysics, 72 (4), 1120-9 PMID: 20436205