How well you perform on video games may be determined, at least in part, by the size of a certain region in your brain, a new study suggests. Researchers were able to predict a player's performance simply based on the size of brain structures linked with learning and memory, with larger being better.
"This really is the first time that we've been able to show that the volume of these regions are predictive of how fast you can learn this task," said Kirk Erickson, a professor of psychology at the University of Pittsburgh.
In addition to entertainment, video games are also being used for educational purposes, including teaching new employees the ropes and training military personnel. While some people benefit greatly from video-game instruction, others do not, Erickson said.
Erickson and his colleagues wondered if a specific region of the brain might be responsible for these differences in learning. They decided to focus on the striatum, a structure located deep inside the cerebral cortex. The striatum is thought to be involved in learning and memory, particularly in tasks that require motor skills, such as playing video games or riding a bike.
While many animal studies have found a link between the striatum and this type of learning, until now, that same connection hadn't been shown in humans. And even if your brain isn't up to snuff for video games, the researchers say there's a possibility training could help beef up the video-game brain regions.
"Even though we're looking at brain volume and preexisting differences in brain volume, we're not saying that these brain regions and the volume [of] these brain regions couldn’t change with other types of support and environmental behaviors," Erickson said. More evidence is needed to determine whether or not they could change, he said.
The study enrolled 36 college students, 26 women and 10 men, who had spent relatively little time playing video games — less than three hours a week over the last two years.
The participants then had to turn into more active gamers. For the study, they learned a video game developed by the research team, with the goal of mastering it over 10 two-hour sessions.
The game, called Space Fortress, simulates a battle between a ship and a fortress. The player uses a joystick to control a ship on a video screen. However, navigating the ship is no easy task — the simulated environment has no friction, meaning that when the virtual ship moves around, there is no resistance to motion. If a player wants to slow the ship down, he or she must rotate it around in a specific manner.
The goal of the game is to destroy a fortress located at the center of the screen by hitting it with missiles. However, it takes a certain number of missiles, fired in correct intervals, to obliterate the fortress, and the player must also watch out for other hazards, including mines. All in all, the game is a complex cognitive task.
Players are awarded points depending on how well they play. In addition to a total score, they also receive sub-scores for specific aspects of their performance, such as their control, velocity and speed in dealing with mines.
The participants did not all learn this game in the same way. Half of the participants were told to simply focus on obtaining the highest score possible, and this was known as the "fixed priority" group. The other half, called the "variable priority" group, were asked to concentrate on different sub-scores in the game, and they periodically switched their focus, sometimes attempting to improve their velocity, other times trying to better their control, and so on.
This is your brain on video games
All of the participants had their brains imaged with a magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) scanner. These scans took place after the subjects had briefly interacted with the Space Fortress game, but before the actual, 20-hour training sessions began.
The researchers found that the size of two sections of the striatum, called the caudate nucleus and the putamen, predicted how well players performed overall on the game. However, their predictions only held true for the participants in the variable priority group, not for those in the fixed priority group.
The results also showed that, regardless of training group, the size of the subject’s nucleus accumbens, a different part of the striatum, correlated with how well the players performed during the early stages of their learning task.
As a control, the researchers also measured the size of the hippocampus, a brain region not expected to be involved the learning process for the video game. They didn't find any correlation between the size of the hippocampus and the player’s performance ability.
The researchers emphasize that the size of the striatum cannot explain all of the variability in learning the video game. Case in point: Members of the fixed priority group were able to learn the task even though the size of their striatum did not predict their game performance.
"It's not that just bigger is always better," Erickson said. "There are certainly some brain regions where the size of the structure has no impact on your learning the task."Future studies are needed to figure out other brain regions involved in video-game learning, he said.
New ways to learn
The findings hint that scientists may one day be able to improve upon educational techniques involving video games.
"We could try to tailor interventions in these video games and video training techniques based on preexisting differences in brain volume measures," Erickson said.
"We might be able to give one person more training, or a different type of training that they could benefit more from than somebody else."
The findings were published online today in the journal Cerebral Cortex.