Some of the elves in our neck of the woods like to go on a trip to Mushroom Kingdom from time to time, just to relax and boost their abilities you understand. Unfortunately being able to double in size or become invincible hasn’t happened in real life yet, but a recent study has looked at whether playing Super Mario can alter the structure of the brain (Kühn et al, 2014).
As playing computer games is a different experience to doing something else, it is inevitable that the brain will change to reflect this, but working out the detail of the changes will be important to better understand the brain. If playing the game can improve some key cognitive processes, it may offer a fun intervention to complement other treatments for people who are struggling with mental health problems.
How video gaming, and spending long periods of time in front of screens, changes us has been a source of big controversy. Although there are a few high profile critics of modern technology (see Susan Greenfield on screen technologies), many research papers have suggested that playing computer games can have a positive effect on a range of motor, perceptual and cognitive abilities. How much these improvements on tests lead to better performance in day to day life skills is an ongoing debate, but in some studies it definitely does (Boot et al, 2011). One message seems to be: if you are going to have an operation using keyhole surgery, ask for a surgeon who has played a lot of computer games!
Researchers in Germany (Kühn et al, 2014) recruited 48 people who had not played any computer games for the previous 6 months and had never played Super Mario 64. They randomised them into 2 groups:
- 23 played Super Mario for at least 30 mins everyday
- 25 were just asked not to play any computer games during the study
Nobody in the study had had any mental health problems in the past and the study lasted 2 months.
The version of Super Mario used is important (and not only to my gaming obsessed pal who insisted I was very, very clear about this issue in the blog). Participants played Mario 64 on the handheld Nintendo DS XXL console. I’ve never read a research paper before that included the line: ‘a 3D platformer game where a princess has to be saved’ but that sums up the objective of the game nicely. To complete the game you need to solve puzzles and navigate around a 3D environment. You can move freely through the world and there are two screens that show Mario’s view from behind and a birds eye view map (see figure 1). Learning navigational strategies is crucial.
The participants had two 3T MRI brain scans before and after the game playing. They also did a number of questionnaires but we’ll focus on the imaging findings here. Unlike many of the studies done before on a similar topic, the researchers did the analysis at a whole brain level. This means that rather than deciding in advance which areas of the brain they think might change (a region of interest approach), they look at the whole brain and allow the statistics to decide which areas are important/significant. In general we should be very cautions about region of interest (ROI) structural imaging studies: they make it more likely there is a false positive and ignore the data from the rest of the brain. This study used one of the good quality whole brain approaches.
The main results are shown in figure 2.
Three areas in the brain increased in size in the group who played Super Mario:
- Right hippocampus
- This area is much bigger in London cabbies and the changes seen here are likely to reflect navigational learning in the game
- The increase here is likely to be due to the visual-motor learning in order to play the game
- Right Dorsolateral Prefrontal Cortex (DLPFC)
- The DLPFC is involved in many cognitive processes. At the most basic level just learning when new behaviours are appropriate is likely to be changing this area of the brain.
- 30 mins of Super Mario 64 a day, changed the structure of the brains of the study participants
- The areas that increased in size are consistent with existing ideas about what those areas do
- Smaller hippocampi and DLPFCs have been found in a range of mental disorders including depression and schizophrenia
- This might reflect a reduction in new experiences whilst suffering a high load of distressing symptoms
- The control group did not do anything similar, so the results may just reflect learning a new skill
- But other computer games have been shown to change other parts of the brain (Tetris has different effects, except in the DLPFC)
- Video game training could help some people improve their abilities
- But what the game does, and what skills you need to play it will be crucial in deciding what might help
Kühn S, Gleich T, Lorenz RC, Lindenberger U, Gallinat J. Playing Super Mario induces structural brain plasticity: gray matter changes resulting from training with a commercial video game. Molecular Psychiatry 19, 265-271 (February 2014) doi:10.1038/mp.2013.120 [Abstract]
Boot WR, Blakely DP, Simons DJ. Do action video games improve perception and cognition? Front Psychol. 2011 Sep 13;2:226. doi: 10.3389/fpsyg.2011.00226. eCollection 2011.