Many of us have grown up under the guise that television and video games rot our brains. Even those of us who reveled in such activities did so for the pure entertainment value, most probably not intending to sharpen our intelligence and certainly not our cognitive abilities. A recent study published in the journal “Nature” has shown that, if properly structured, video games can do just that.In an experiment aimed at combating Alzheimer’s in the elderly, researchers created a game designed to improve multi-tasking in older audiences. Although this was the initial goal, the study also improved cognitive areas that it was not explicitly targeting, such as sustained attention and working memory. Its power stems essentially from our brains plasticity, that is to say its capacity to reform itself structurally, functionally, and chemically.
The MethodThe study worked as follows: after confirming that multi-taking does indeed diminish with age, researchers took 46 healthy adults between the ages of 60 and 85 and assigned them to play the game. Each individual was randomly assigned to either the multi-tasking version, the single-task version, or not to play at all.During the game, participants watch a car drive down the road, and were tasked with pressing certain buttons when specific road signs appeared. If participating in the multi-tasking version, they were also required to drive the car itself while following a preset path. The game was intelligently designed to adapt to suit the players difficulty, becoming easier for those less skilled, and harder for those who excelled. This allowed all players to stay engaged without becoming bored or frustrated, regardless of their skill level.While participating in the study, scientists had participants wear electroencephalography (EEG) caps to keep track of changes in brain activity before and after playing the game. On average, those who played the multi-tasking version experienced a dramatic drop in what scientists call “cost reduction”, meaning the extent to which the second task diminishes from the accomplishment of the first one. The lower the cost reduction percentage, the more efficiently each task is accomplished.The ResultsOlder adults experienced a 65% cost reduction before participating in the experiment, and a dramatically improved 16% after. In comparison, a group of untrained 20 year olds were shown to have a cost reduction of 20%, worse than that of the elderly participants.
Additionally, the results carried over to their everyday lives, even while no longer training with the game, displaying the projects potential for long term effects. Finally, it is important to note that although the study obviously shows great promise, the research is still very small-scale, requiring further experimentation before its true implications can be surmised.