Video Games Enhance Visual Attention

Video games might cause aggressive behavior,1 and they may contribute to childhood obesity,2 but recent research by Daphne Bavelier and her colleagues at the University of Rochester suggests that playing video games can have at least one benefit: they enhance visual attention

Visual attention is the mental mechanism we use to select relevant visual information and suppress irrelevant information in our visual field. This ability is particularly important during activities that require selective focus amidst an overwhelming amount of incoming visual material. Driving a car or flying an airplane are two such circumstances . . . as is playing a video game.

In action-packed video games such as Halo or Call of Duty, players must aim and shoot accurately while simultaneously tracking enemies and other rapidly moving objects—thus emphasizing visual attention. In studies comparing the visual attention of gamers and non-gamers, Bavelier and her colleagues found that gamers consistently outperformed non-gamers.3 Furthermore, non-gamers who practiced playing video games demonstrated improved visual attention. This means that playing the video games increased gamers’ visual attention (as opposed to the alternative possibility that people with superior visual attention tend to play video games).

The implications of this research are important in both medicine and the military. EyeMario, a system developed by National Labs, is a vision-controlled video game that is being used to treat amblyopic patients. Amblyopia, or “lazy eye,” is treated by forcing the patient to exercise their lazy eye, often by patching the healthy one. Video games such as EyeMario work as “eye exercises”: sensors attached to the player’s face detect retinal movements and use these to control the character Mario’s actions in the game.

In addition to helping patients with visual deficits, Bavelier and her colleagues suggested in their review that fighter pilots would benefit greatly from enhanced visual attention. In 2008, the U.S. Army invested $50 million over 5 years to develop games and gaming systems to train soldiers, and the Program Executive Office for Stimulation, Training, & Instrumentation (PEO-STRI) has already developed the Additional Blackhawk Flight Simulator—amongst other programs—to help train army pilots.

Read Bavelier et al.’s research in WIREs Cognitive Science.

Watch a demonstration of EyeMario.

Find more PEO-STRI programs.

Resources from Wiley on This Topic
Computer Assisted Exercises and Training: A Reference Guide

by Erdal Cayirci and Dusan Marincic

1. Anderson, C., & Carnagey, N. (2009). Causal effects of violent sports video games on aggression: Is it competitiveness or violent content? Journal of Experimental Social Psychology, 45 (4), 731-739 DOI: 10.1016/j.jesp.2009.04.019

2. Vandewater EA, Shim MS, & Caplovitz AG (2004). Linking obesity and activity level with children’s television and video game use. Journal of adolescence, 27 (1), 71-85 PMID: 15013261

3. Hubert-Wallander, B., Green, C., & Bavelier, D. (2010). Stretching the limits of visual attention: the case of action video games Wiley Interdisciplinary Reviews: Cognitive Science DOI: 10.1002/wcs.116

Stress: Does Gender Matter?

According to the Anxiety Disorders Association of America, 40 million Americans suffer from anxiety disorders—over twice the number of people who suffer from alcoholism,1 and nearly three times the number who suffer from depression.2 Of these 40 million people, two-thirds are female. While culture and environment might play contributing roles, science suggests that women may be chemically predisposed to “stress out.”

Corticotropin-releasing factor (CRF) is a neurotransmitter that is released due to stress and binds to neurons in the locus ceruleus, the “alarm center” of the brainstem. CRF’s ability to set off “alarms” in this area of the brain (that is, to stimulate neurons) is affected by:

  1. the amount of neurotransmitter released in the brain, and
  2. how readily neuroreceptors bind to it.

In a study published this past summer in Molecular Psychiatry, a team of researchers at The Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia investigated the latter phenomenon by comparing how CRF receptors responded in male vs. female rats. They found that even before the rats were stressed, lower levels of CRF were necessary to activate neurons in female rats than male rats. Then, after the rats were put through a stressful swim, the male rats’ neurons pulled their CRF receptors inside the neuronal membrane, effectively preventing the receptors from accepting the CRF neurotransmitter. Female rats’ neurons, however, left their CRF receptors exposed and ready to bind with the neurotransmitter, thereby making those neurons more susceptible to the effects of stress.

These results seem to suggest that females are at a considerable disadvantage when it comes to dealing with stressful situations. However, the results of an earlier study published in Psychological Review4 suggest that oxytocin—a hormone secreted in response to stress—actually gives females a physiological advantage when coping with the effects of stress. Oxytocin mediates stress; it typically makes people less anxious and more social (known as the “tend-and-befriend” pattern of behavior). Researchers at the UCLA found that male hormones reduce the effect of oxytocin, while female hormones amplify it.

These two studies may seem to contradict one another; however, they are only contradictory when asking, “Who is more affected by stress, males or females?” In response to the question, “Why do males and females respond differently to stress?” they provide compelling answers:

  • Male bodies suppress oxytocin, so they experience the initial CRF-induced “fight or flight” response to stress.
  • Females are more likely to “tend or befriend” in response to stress, thanks to oxytocin mediation of the immediate CRF-induced response.
  • Female CRF receptors are more sensitive to the CRF neurotransmitter and, under stress, their neurons leave those receptors exposed. This may explain why females are twice as likely to suffer from anxiety disorders as males.

More Resources from Wiley on This Topic

Stress – From Molecules to Behavior: A Comprehensive Analysis of the Neurobiology of Stress Responses

by Hermona Soreq, Alon Friedman, Daniela Kaufer

Stress, Neurotransmitters, and Hormones: Neuroendocrine and Genetic Mechanisms

by Richard Kvetnansky, Greti Aguilera, David Goldstein, Daniela Jezova, Olga Krizanova, Esther Sabban, Karel Pacak

Molecular and Biophysical Mechanisms of Arousal, Alertness and Attention

edited by Donald W. Pfaff, Brigitte Kieffer

1. National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism (NIAAA), 2007.

2. National Institute of Mental Health (NIMH), 2004/2005.

3. Bangasser, D., Curtis, A., Reyes, B., Bethea, T., Parastatidis, I., Ischiropoulos, H., Van Bockstaele, E., & Valentino, R. (2010). Sex differences in corticotropin-releasing factor receptor signaling and trafficking: potential role in female vulnerability to stress-related psychopathology Molecular Psychiatry, 15 (9), 896-904 DOI: 10.1038/mp.2010.66

4. Taylor, S., Klein, L., Lewis, B., Gruenewald, T., Gurung, R., & Updegraff, J. (2000). Biobehavioral responses to stress in females: Tend-and-befriend, not fight-or-flight. Psychological Review, 107 (3), 411-429 DOI: 10.1037//0033-295X.107.3.411

Fitter Kids Means Bigger Brains

Parents take note: if you want your kids to grow bigger brains, think twice about letting schools cut recess or skimp on physical education.

Animal and human studies have long shown that exercise increases neurogenesis, especially in memory- and learning-related areas of the brain.1, 2 More recently, research on human adolescents has not only confirmed these findings, but highlighted the importance of physical activity for children.

Art Kramer and several colleagues at the University of Illinois published two studies this year that demonstrated correlations not only between exercise and improved cognitive abilities, but exercise and actual brain growth, as well. In the first study3, scientists recruited 9-and-10 year-old children who were either very physically fit or not fit at all. They then asked both groups to complete computer tasks measuring how well the children could filter out extraneous information and attend to relevant cues. Finally, they used MRI to measure the volume of certain structures in the children’s brains. What they found was that not only did the more physically fit children score better on the computer tasks, but their basal ganglia—a brain structure responsible for maintaining attention and coordinating actions and thoughts with precision—was also significantly larger.

In the second study4, another group of high- and low- fitness 9- and 10-year olds was recruited. This time the children were tested on their complex memory, for which brain activity has been linked the hippocampus. As may have been predicted from the results of the first experiment, MRI brain scans showed that the fitter children possessed larger hippocampi.

So if exercise promotes neurogenesis, what else might help grow your brain?

Alcohol. In moderation, alcohol may actually increase brain cells. Mice that consumed moderate amounts of ethanol experienced cell proliferation in their dentate gyrus, a part of the hippocampus.5

Chocolate. Cocoa, the major ingredient in chocolate, contains a antioxidant called epicatechin, which has been shown to improve spatial memory in mice.6

Marijuana. A controversial study found that stimulating rats’ brain receptors for marijuana increased neurogenesis.7 Gary Wenk at Ohio State University has continued in this line of research, exploring medicinal use of THC (the main psychoactive substance in marijuana) to prevent Alzheimer’s disease. However, the subject remains controversial, as a recent review in Drug and Alcohol Review will attest.8

1. van Praag, H. (1999). Running enhances neurogenesis, learning, and long-term potentiation in mice Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, 96 (23), 13427-13431 DOI: 10.1073/pnas.96.23.13427

2. Praag, H. (2008). Neurogenesis and Exercise: Past and Future Directions NeuroMolecular Medicine, 10 (2), 128-140 DOI: 10.1007/s12017-008-8028-z

3. Chaddock, L., Erickson, K., Prakash, R., VanPatter, M., Voss, M., Pontifex, M., Raine, L., Hillman, C., & Kramer, A. (2010). Basal Ganglia Volume Is Associated with Aerobic Fitness in Preadolescent Children Developmental Neuroscience, 32 (3), 249-256 DOI: 10.1159/000316648

4. Chaddock, L., Erickson, K., Prakash, R., Kim, J., Voss, M., VanPatter, M., Pontifex, M., Raine, L., Konkel, A., & Hillman, C. (2010). A neuroimaging investigation of the association between aerobic fitness, hippocampal volume, and memory performance in preadolescent children Brain Research, 1358, 172-183 DOI: 10.1016/j.brainres.2010.08.049

5. Åberg, E., Hofstetter, C., Olson, L., & Brené, S. (2005). Moderate ethanol consumption increases hippocampal cell proliferation and neurogenesis in the adult mouse The International Journal of Neuropsychopharmacology, 8 (04) DOI: 10.1017/S1461145705005286

6. van Praag, H., Lucero, M., Yeo, G., Stecker, K., Heivand, N., Zhao, C., Yip, E., Afanador, M., Schroeter, H., Hammerstone, J., & Gage, F. (2007). Plant-Derived Flavanol (-)Epicatechin Enhances Angiogenesis and Retention of Spatial Memory in Mice Journal of Neuroscience, 27 (22), 5869-5878 DOI: 10.1523/JNEUROSCI.0914-07.2007

7. Jiang, W. (2005). Cannabinoids promote embryonic and adult hippocampus neurogenesis and produce anxiolytic- and antidepressant-like effects Journal of Clinical Investigation, 115 (11), 3104-3116 DOI: 10.1172/JCI25509

8. DOWNER, E., & CAMPBELL, V. (2009). Phytocannabinoids, CNS cells and development: A dead issue? Drug and Alcohol Review, 29 (1), 91-98 DOI: 10.1111/j.1465-3362.2009.00102.x