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Brain training: research shows that video games exercise the mind

In a computer-dominated age, where Nano-microchips process information quickly enough to keep an A.D.D.-riddled mind at bay, it’s hard to steer kids (and many adults) away from the allure of video games. These have been blamed for everything from promoting youth violence to contributing to childhood obesity. But new research might change the minds of parents who skipped the video game aisle this holiday shopping season. A new study in the December issue of the journal Perception shows that playing video games can sharpen analytical thinking skills, increase cognitive speed in those who play action games, and boost mental accuracy in those who play puzzle-solving games.

The research, led by psychology professor Rolf Nelson, involved 20 students who completed multiple cognitive tasks, then played either an action game or a puzzle-solving video game for an hour, after which they repeated the first task. “Playing a game which requires very fast deployment of visual attention and motor movement could prime a strategy of speed over accuracy,” explained Nelson, “while playing a game which emphasizes a slower, more thoughtful pace could prime the opposite pattern. The main point is that different kinds of video games engage different cognitive and perceptual skills, and there are measurable differences in their effects, even in the short term.”

Nelson and his team found a measurable increase in accuracy and speed in memory and analytical tasks after the participants played the controlled video game. Similar results have also been found in similar studies. In research by Daphne Bavelier of University of Rochester, New York, video game players showed improved hand-to-eye coordination, increased visual processing, and stronger mental rotation skills. The results showed many benefits garnered from only a session or two of video-gaming.

In 2005, Nintendo made news when it released “Brain Age: Train Your Brain in Minutes a Day” for their hand-held console. Based on research by Japanese neuroscientists, the game presented players with a variety of puzzles and quizzes that researchers claimed would stimulate blood flow to the brain’s prefrontal cortex. The game promised players mental exercises: timed math quizzes and word puzzles that assessed the player’s “brain age” based on the speed and accuracy with which the mental tests were completed. This summer, Nintendo launched two new entries into the brain-training phenomenon.

It might be premature to purchase a video game for a child if better grades are the desired result. Nelson says more research is needed before video games are added to a child’s school curriculum. “One difficulty is that video game developers are in the entertainment industry, and the goal is often to capture attention for as long as possible without much regard for how it affects thinking after the game,” he said. “So it’s not going to be easy to figure out what kinds of effects any given video game has.”

- Anthony Isaac Palacios

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