September 08, 2013

Playing Games

It’s not often that a “research letter,” a short, preliminary report about ongoing research, makes it into the national media. But this week, newspapers picked up on just this kind of article from Nature, a prominent science journal. The article tentatively concluded that people aged 60-85 who practiced a custom designed video game several hours a week got better at multi-tasking. Not only that, but the improvement persisted 6 months later and was manifest not just in better performance on the game but in other measures of attention and memory. So is it time for octogenarians to start playing video games with their grandchildren?

Even before the University of California San Francisco lab published its NeuroRacer results, online companies like Lumosity were doing a booming business. Calling itself a “brain training and neuroscience research company,” Lumosity creates computer-based games that ostensibly offer a “scientifically proven brain workout.” It reported a 150% increase in business between 2012 and 2013, with 35 million users worldwide by January of this year and as many as 100,000 new subscribers each day. Clearly, people want to believe that playing mind games will keep them sharp and perhaps even fend off dementia. 

To be fair, the authors of the study in Nature aren’t proposing anything of the kind. They offer their work as an illustration of the “plasticity” of the “prefrontal cortex,” or the ability of the brain to adapt with practice, even at older ages. But do mind exercises translate into useful improvements—as opposed to better scores on simple tests? And at least as important, if mind exercises are effective, what about singing in a chorus? Participating in a discussion group? Writing a letter-to-the-editor? The new study compared volunteers (hardly a random selection of the population) who played the video game to other volunteers who did not; it did not compare playing the video game to other activities. 

What’s wonderful about these other pastimes—playing music, arguing, writing—is that they are fulfilling in and of themselves, whatever their cognitive benefit. Social engagement helps prevent depression; it gives people a sense that they matter. Perhaps it’s harder to study the effects of making music than to measure the EEG (brain wave) correlates of playing video games; after all, playing Beethoven may be different from playing Mozart, trios may be more challenging than duets, and playing the piano may not be equivalent to playing the clarinet. It’s certainly a great deal easier to monetize a video game than a social network that helps older people find others with shared interests. 

Researchers should keep on studying highly standardized, precise activities. But for now, I’d take my chances with the real world, not the virtual world.

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