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Action Video Games Can Boost Brain Functions: But, Which Ones and for Whom?

Posted Jan 12 2011 12:30pm

Playing action video games a lot can boost performance in a variety of sensory, perceptual, and attentional tasks, even in tasks very different from the ones involved in the game play.

A recent study suggests that action video games improve a key aspect of decision-making: The ability to infer quickly the probability that a given answer is correct on the basis of limited evidence (“probabilistic inference”). Such an ability is used in many basic perceptual and sensory tasks, which would explain the general transfer of training benefits observed for players.

In the study one group played 50 hours of the fast-paced action video games “Call of Duty 2″ and “Unreal Tournament,” and the other group played 50 hours of the slow-moving strategy game “The Sims 2.” After training, the action game players gave accurate answers faster than the strategy game players in both visual and auditory tasks. These tasks involved, for instance, determining as fast as possible the overall direction of a group of randomly moving dots or identifying with which ear they heard a tone concealed in white noise.

Comment: In an earlier post I reasoned that to be successful, brain training has to target relevant and specific brain functions. If you prac­tice play­ing base­ball you do not expect to get bet­ter at play­ing bas­ket­ball. In the same way if you want to improve your verbal skills you should not expect to do so by training your visuospatial skills. This study shows that this may be true only for specific, high-level functions.  Indeed, here training probabilistic inference benefited several perceptual and sensory tasks. So, it may be that the more basic the function trained, the more tasks the function will be involved in and thus the more tasks will benefit from the training. Something to keep in mind when choosing which mental activity may be the right one for you.

Who may benefit from the sensory improvement provided by playing action video games? Many people for whom it is important to make quick decisions based on visual or auditory information (if you are a surgeon or in the middle of a battle field). Focusing on vision, Daphne Bave­lier , one of the authors of the study, suggested that “inter­ven­tions that include action videogame play as a com­po­nent could be used to enhance the visual abil­i­ties (and thus the over­all qual­ity of life) of many who suf­fer from low vision.[…] Since excel­lent vision and visual atten­tion are impor­tant skills for many pro­fes­sions (mil­i­tary per­son­nel, taxi dri­vers, fire­fight­ers, and most ath­letes, to cite a few), it is likely that a large por­tion of the pop­u­la­tion could ben­e­fit from the enhance­ments dis­cussed here.”

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