Saturday, November 19, 2011

Scary news about video games

From The Seattle Times:
Fourteen-year-olds who were frequent video gamers had more gray matter in the rewards center of the brain than peers who didn't play video games as much — suggesting that gaming may be correlated to changes in the brain, much as addictions are.

European scientists reported the discovery Tuesday in the journal Translational Psychiatry. Psychologist Simone Kuhn of Ghent University in Belgium and colleagues recruited 154 healthy 14-year-olds in Berlin and divided them into two groups. Twenty-four girls and 52 boys were frequent gamers who played at least nine hours of video games each week. Fifty-eight girls and 20 boys were infrequent gamers, who played less than nine hours a week.

Structural magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) showed differences in the test subjects' brains. Frequent gamers had more gray matter in a portion of the brain known as the left ventral striatum, which affects the interplay of emotions and behavior. Previous research identified striatal function as a "core candidate promoting addictive behavior," the authors wrote.

I might point out that there's absolutely no cause and effect here. This doesn't indicate that playing video games causes these changes in our brains, since it could be the other way around, that kids with this extra "gray matter" just tend to find video games more fun.

But more importantly, everything changes our brains. If you spend a great deal of time playing the piano, that's going to change your brain, too. Our brains adapt - to some extent - to how we use them.

I don't want to exaggerate this, because our brains aren't entirely plastic, I'm sure. But they're still very adaptable, especially when we're young. This isn't a bad thing, not at all. But we regularly see these kinds of scare stories in the media.

For example, there was that story in The Atlantic a few years ago, "Is Google Making Us Stupid?" Subtitled "What the internet is doing to our brains," it was the same kind of thing. Filled with anecdotes, it no doubt made many readers anxious, as they saw evidence of similar things in their own lives.

But anecdotes aren't evidence, because that's just how our brains work. Even normal things start to seem significant, just because we start to notice them. In all superstition, we notice the hits far more than the misses.

As you get older, if you start to worry about your mental abilities (and what senior doesn't?), every time you forget a name, that will be another "hit." Of course, people of any age sometimes forget things. It's only when you start worrying about it that it seems significant.

Likewise, we all get impatient or distracted or bored. Those aren't new to the internet age. Believe it or not, we actually used to get distracted before computers even existed!

Now, I love to play computer games. (Maybe that's because they're, you know, designed to be fun.) I've always loved to read, too. When I was a kid, I had my nose in a book just all the time. Well, they were also designed to be fun.

I was really addicted to reading. I read everything I could get my hands on. So, did all that reading change my brain? Yeah, probably. At least to some extent. So what?

Many of us, especially as we get older, just like to sit around complaining about how the world is going to hell in a hand-basket. I have no doubt that Cro-Magnon men, gathered around their caves, had the exact same worries. Yeah, these new stone-chipping techniques are a sign of the end-times...

Chill out, people! There are good reasons for some worries, but let's make sure we have good reasons. Newspapers and magazines want to attract readers, and sensational articles tend to do that. But in this case, there's no reason to start worrying - not yet, at least, and maybe not ever.


AJ said...

A little more gray matter could be a good thing, don't you think?

WCG said...

Heh, heh. Good point, AJ!