This frowned upon childhood activity has this great brain benefit

Since the 1980s video games have been used as a scapegoat to explain any number of undesirable adolescent behaviors. Some say video games promote violent behavior, others say that Mario and Luigi destroy attention spans. Meanwhile, many are simply of the opinion that there are tons of more productive ways for a child to spend their time.

Now, in a surprising change of pace, a new study has identified a tangible benefit linked to childhood afternoons spent in front of the N64 or Playstation. Researchers at the Universitat Oberta de Catalunya (the Open University of Catalonia in Barcelona, Spain) say that adults who played video games as a child performed far better on a series of working memory tasks than others who had never picked up a controller.

Astoundingly, it seems an individual doesn’t have to continue gaming into adulthood to enjoy these memory benefits. Just having played video games as a child appears to be enough.

“People who were avid gamers before adolescence, despite no longer playing, performed better with the working memory tasks, which require mentally holding and manipulating information to get a result,” comments study co-author Marc Palaus, who earned a Ph.D. at the UOC, in a university release.

In all, 27 people took part in this study, all between the ages of 18 and 40. Some of those participants had grown up playing video games, while others had no experience at all. 

Originally, the research team wanted to investigate if playing video games in combination with 10 transcranial magnetic stimulation sessions over the course of a month would result in meaningful improvements in participants’ cognitive skills and memory strength.

Transcranial magnetic stimulation is a non-invasive brain stimulation procedure that entails using magnetic fields to stimulate the mind’s nerve cells. It’s most commonly used to combat particularly hard-to-treat depression cases, but this study’s authors hypothesized that a combination of TMS and video game playing would improve participants’ long-term cognitive and memory skills.

“It uses magnetic waves which, when applied to the surface of the skull, are able to produce electrical currents in underlying neural populations and modify their activity,” Palaus explains. 

“We aimed to achieve lasting changes. Under normal circumstances, the effects of this stimulation can last from milliseconds to tens of minutes. We wanted to achieve improved performance of certain brain functions that lasted longer than this,” he continues.

That theory, however, wasn’t supported by the experiment’s results. Participants had their cognitive skills tested on three occasions; once before they started playing video games for a full month, again immediately after the month passed, and then one more time 15 days later. All participants played a 1990s classic for this research: Super Mario 64 for the Nintendo 64.

All of those assessments didn’t indicate any long-term cognitive benefits linked to a combination of video game playing and TMS treatment. 

But, the study’s authors did notice a different trend. Participants who had played video games earlier in life were faster to complete, and scored higher, on assessments measuring both working memory and inhibitory control.

Similarly, childhood gamers were also better at processing 3D objects at the beginning of the study.

“People who played regularly as children performed better from the outset in processing 3D objects, although these differences were mitigated after the period of training in video gaming, when both groups showed similar levels,” Palaus notes.

Why do video games appear to be so beneficial for one’s memory? Researchers say that video games do a great job of capturing peoples’ attention and enticing them to keep playing, as well as progressively ramping up the difficulty from level to level, which keeps players engaged and challenged.

“These two things are enough to make it an attractive and motivating activity, which, in turn, requires constant and intense use of our brain’s resources,” he concludes. “Video games are a perfect recipe for strengthening our cognitive skills, almost without our noticing.” 

Palaus made it a point to clarify his last quote by explaining video games aren’t going to work memory miracles in every aspect of one’s life. So, playing hours upon hours of Metal Gear Solid isn’t necessarily going to make it easier for one to learn French 10 years later. But, it may help with multitasking and quick decision making.

Still, these findings are sure to give millions of children a new way to protest the next time mom or dad tells them to turn the Xbox off.

The full study can be found here, published in Frontiers in Human Neuroscience.