March 6, 2013
Scientific American
Gary Stix

Two prominent neuroscientists have published a commentary in the Feb. 28th Nature suggesting that video games might be crafted to improve brain function and enhance personal well-being. In “Games To Do You Good,” they cite prospects for bettering performance on behavioral measures ranging from visual perception to altruism.

Daphne Bavelier of the University of Rochester and Richard J. Davidson of the University of Wisconsin put forward a plan calling for neuroscientists and game designers to work together to determine what aspects of play can improve cognitive performance—and for enabling game designers from academia to get their products to market, a process they compare to transferring drugs from the lab to patients.

The promise of video games for enhancing perception, recollection and other cognitive skills was highlighted as well in the January/February issue of Scientific American Mind in an article that points out that games like Call of Duty can improve visual ability, attention, spatial reasoning and decision making. The article mentions the work of Bavelier, an advisor to a game company, and others who are trying to realize the vision of neural enhancement either through action play or explicitly labeled brain training.

By coincidence, the same issue of Mind highlights one of the biggest snags in bringing forth gaming as pedagogy. In the letters section of that issue, three researchers—David Hambrick, Frederick Oswald and Thomas Redick—cite the absence of any convincing evidence for efforts to improve intelligence through mental exercises —the basis for much of the lucrative brain-game industry. Their letter was a response to an earlier Mind article that showed that an “n-back test,” incorporated into some games, can improve working memory, a measure related to intelligence. (See their letter online under the sub-heading Fixing Intelligence.)

What’s the answer? I can only waffle here. One of my editors always entreats staffers to try to bring out a clear argument in any story that we write or edit. The brain-video game arena is one reporting area in which I have always utterly failed to meet that objective. The article by Bavelier and Davidson indicates why it is difficult to disentangle studies on games for brain enhancement. This type of research is tough to do. “Placebo controls are not possible,” the authors write, “so optimal designs probably involve having several comparison groups, including an active gameplaying comparison [group] and perhaps other, more typical interventions, such as drug therapy.”

To continue this on-the-one-hand/other-hand thread that drives my editor crazy: something along these lines certainly seems possible. One of the underlying themes in brain research in recent decades is the accumulation of evidence for neuroplasticity, the brain’s apparent ability to remold like clay in response to changing inputs from the outside world: the brain of a blind person expropriating the visual cortex to process sensations of touch. One long-time pioneer in neuroplasticity research, Michael Merzenich, became involved with developing brain-training software—and researchers in the laboratory of Nina Kraus at Northwestern University reported in February that using one of the brain training exercises developed by Merzenich’s company, Posit Science, enabled older adults to hear better by letting them process sounds more quickly.

It’s studies like this that may have prompted the White House Office of Science and Technology and the National Science Foundation to organize a get-together last year of gaming companies and neuroscientists—and the second annual Entertainment Software and Cognitive Neurotherapeutics Society conference being held from March 15 to 17th at the University of Southern California.

The biggest challenge in all of these endeavors will be to determine whether a higher score on Call of Duty translates into a larger tally on tests of mental processing time (how fast you jam on the brakes when a kid runs in front of your car to retrieve a ball) or working memory (keeping a new phone number in your head long enough to dial). As the letter writers to Mind imply, not much evidence exists so far that a video war fantasy or a psychological test, slightly re-purposed into the form of a commercial brain game, will get you into Mensa if you didn’t have the essentials from the outset.

Call of Duty may improve memory, attention, reflexes and whatnot for Sergeant John “Soap” MacTavish, a game character, but that’s wholly separate from whether the actual game player also displays augmented function for those attributes when venturing beyond a desktop virtual world. Daniel T. Willingham, a professor of psychology from the University of Virgina, sums up the main critique of cognitive calisthenics: “What we really want to do is target a cognitive process [say, attention or memory] and then design a game that packages practice of that process into a gaming experience. That effort has been ongoing for 20 years or so in the education world and game designers have found it much more difficult than anyone thought it would be.”

Judging whether anything has actually changed within the neural circuitry of a game player’s prefrontal cortex is an exceedingly tough call. A player may actually improve when tested on a measure like working memory, in principle, demonstrating that interacting with battlefield graphics translates into an improvement in mental ability. But that may not suffice. Willingham again:

There has been enormous controversy over transfer in working-memory training. At least in some tests, researchers show transfer [from the game to] working memory measures. What they don’t show is beneficial effects of working memory training to cognitive processes that have working memory as a constituent—reasoning, for example. So working memory is highly correlated with reasoning ability and then you boost working memory…but reasoning doesn’t get any better. Why? That’s still under debate…it’s not obvious that if we can boost mental rotation [a skill mentioned by Bavelier and Davidson], we will make people into better dentists or scientists.

The difficulty will likely leave both psychologists and software developers executives undeterred, if only because of the hypnotic allure of gaming: Call of Duty: Black Ops was played the equivalent of 68,000 years in the month after its release. Michael Posner, a professor of psychology from the University of Oregon, believes that the issue of transfer effects will ultimately be addressable: “We do have principles for predicting transfer based on common elements among tasks, common mental operation in performing them, or common anatomy of the brain networks that support them. Many of the findings are disputed, but I think in the end it will be possible to know the limits of generalization of different forms of learning.”

More (and better designed) research will be needed before that goal is achieved. Walter Boot, who researches complex skill training at Florida State University, says that most of the studies on games arrive freighted with methodological flaws—they include overly simple lab tasks, inadequate control groups and a failure to measure whether a game skill translated to the world beyond the confines of a game. “The potential of games to improve cognition is exciting and in the end may be a fruitful approach,” Boot says, “but it will be important for consumers of these games to be given realistic expectations regarding their effect. Much more research is necessary before this can happen.”

For the moment, a video or brain game that enhances neuroplasticity or IQ may not be where a parent or student should look to learn how to learn better. Willingham and colleagues published a lengthy review in Psychological Science in the Public Interest this year that shows that the student that tests herself on recently learned material and goes over coursework at set intervals, rather than cramming, has the best chance of success. Whether or not they make the brain more plastic, these tried-and-true methods, affirmed by a body of psychological research, may be as good as it gets.