Did your parents always tell you that too much Super Mario would fry your brain as a kid? The truth is in another castle. Then again, mom might have had a reason to unplug if you were wielding a virtual bazooka in Doom or Duke Nukem.
New research published in Molecular Psychiatry suggests that first-person shooter games which evolved from Nukem’s pixelated targets to much more realistic battle simulations like Call of Duty may increase the chance of aggressive behavior when the kids who play them level up to adulthood. Scientists have unlocked evidence that blasting things onscreen in action games actually shrinks the gray matter in your hippocampus, the part of the brain that scores points for emotional responses and long-term memory. Lower levels of gray matter in the hippocampus are linked to elevated depression, Alzheimer’s and PTSD* risk. Surprisingly, 3D platform games (where your character is jumping around on floating mountains and islands and whatever else) such as Super Mario have the opposite effect.
Using computer analysis, University of Montreal associate professor of psychology Greg West and his team found significantly less gray matter in critical regions of the hippocampus after they zeroed in on MRI brain scans of action gamers. Even scarier than getting vaporized by virtual fire is that these games had the same effect on both experienced gamers and newbs who just played for 90 hours. This happens because of a whole other war raging inside your brain. What powers all that shooting is the caudate nucleus, which is what drives the “autopilot” function and reward system that tells you how thirsty you are after all that gaming—but overusing it threatens the hippocampus.
“There’s evidence that stimulation of the caudate nucleus [which kicks into high gear under pressure] can directly inhibit the hippocampus, especially under stress,” said West. “But what we now understand is the overuse of that caudate nucleus system will result in inhibition of the hippocampal memory system, which will lead to underuse, and underuse will lead to cell death or atrophy.”
Before you start thinking back on whether that marathon Doom session back in 1993 might have had any effect on your rush hour road rage, the research takes into account the type of brain behind the game. It seems that spatial learners have the advantage here. If you are more likely to navigate your way through a maze by using landmarks and other spatial clues, you probably have more hippocampal gray matter than response learners who rely on repeated moves to get out and have more grey matter in their caudate nucleus.
Now this will blow your mind. After studying a group of gamer test subjects for 90 hours, West found that those playing first-person shooters were mostly response learners and exhibited more gray matter atrophy in their hippocampus. Spatial learners who played the same games surprisingly had a boost in hippocampal gray matter. The same increase happened in both groups when they binged on Super Mario.
So does this mean being a former Doom junkie has left you permanently brain-damaged? Unlikely. Just get a jump on Super Mario for now.
*In the case of trauma occurring later in life. Psychological theories have suggested a predisposition to being more severely affected by traumatic events, but it has to be exacerbated by actual trauma for a PTSD diagnosis. Read more here.