Could video games improve your memory?
By Michèle Sirois, collaborator at the Institut universitaire de gériatrie de Montréal (geriatric institute) and host of the Ère Libre show on MAtv.
Science confirmed a few years ago that aging brains continue to have strong capabilities. But you have to use it in order not to lose it. Can video games be one way to improve cognitive health?
It’s a question that several researchers are looking into, including Dr. Sylvie Belleville* and her team at the Institut universitaire de gériatrie de Montréal’s research centre. Dr. Belleville presented the research findings in a lecture given in the Le Groupe Maurice amphitheatre on February 25, 2019.
Giving the brain a workout
Many of us who are getting up there in age have noticed that our minds are starting to play tricks on us and that our concentration and attention are not as sharp as they used to be. That’s to be expected. The white matter of the brain, which contains the fibres that carry nerve impulses between neurons, loses volume over time. That’s why it takes longer for information to travel through our brains. We need more time and effort to find the “answer.” But remember that we can give our brains a workout by venturing out of our intellectual comfort zone. Brain training creates new neural pathways, which can help the mind better withstand the aging process.
We now know of several strategies that can be applied to work our brain and make it more flexible:
- Reading about less common topics
- Summarizing a book, an exhibition, a lecture
- Volunteering, remaining socially active
- Learning a language
Dr. Belleville told us that cognitively stimulating activities appear to reduce the risk of developing Alzheimer’s disease by 60%. That’s significant.
But what about video games? Can they help exercise the brain? And if so, are some more effective than others? Which games work the memory and which develop attention?
Choosing the right game
Most video games are developed purely for recreational purposes. While their aim is solely enjoyment, researchers wanted to check if they could also affect memory and attention.
A large cohort of people aged 65 and older participated in the study and were asked to play Super Mario 64 for six months. This game requires players to explore a rich and varied world, to memorize routes and find targets. A large number of participants abandoned the study, saying that they didn’t like the game. However, when researchers tested the memories of those who persisted, they saw an improvement. Magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) scans showed that the hippocampus, the brain structure where memory function resides, had grown larger in these participants.
It would seem that the “exploratory” aspect of the game is responsible for these cognitive improvements. Other games relatively similar to Super Mario 64, but that equip the player with a GPS, had no positive impacts on the brain. Some even had negative effects on certain brain functions.
Another game, Crazy Taxi, was tested. In this game, players travel across a city as a passenger in a taxi. They have to identify different stimuli (road signs) that pop up randomly in order to guide the taxi driver. After playing this game, people with light cognitive impairments had improved attention. However, the game did not seem to have any effect on memory.
Video Games to improve your memory or attention
Dr. Belleville told us what to look for when choosing a game.
To improve memory, the game has to contain the following elements:
- The player has to create a mental image of the environment
- The player has to carry out activities involving exploring the space
- The player has to explore rich and varied environments
- The player has to solve visual puzzles
- The player has to use skills other than simply reacting to targets
- The game doesn’t use GPS technology to guide the player
Here are some of the games that were tested by scientists and contain these elements: Super Mario 64, Tetris, Banjo-Kazooie and Rise of the Tomb Raider.
To improve attention, the game has to contain the following elements:
- The player has to search the visual space
- The player has to react quickly to random stimuli
- The game has many rapidly appearing elements
Borderlands 2, Crazy Taxi and Call of Duty are examples of such games.
In the near future, we can expect researchers and the video game/virtual reality industry to work together to produce games that improve our cognitive faculties.
In the meantime, the scientific community remains cautious and reminds us that video games’ effects on the brain still need to be better understood, especially excessive play.
However, researchers know beyond a shadow of a doubt that combining stimulating intellectual activities and physical exercise remains the best way to keep our brain alert.
In closing, Dr. Belleville left us with a question that got us thinking: Can technology replace human contact?
* Sylvie Belleville, Ph. D., neuropsychologist, researcher, scientific director at the Institut universitaire de gériatrie de Montréal’s research centre and professor in the Université de Montréal’s Psychology Department