For years, proponents of video games as more than idle time-wasters have argued that the act of playing games can in and of itself boost brain function. A study published yesterday by researchers from the Max Planck Institute for Human Development, in the prestigious journal Nature, may be the best proof yet that regularly playing video games can actually make your brain more powerful.
It's certainly the most visceral. The study, titled "Playing Super Mario induces structural brain plasticity: gray matter changes resulting from training with a commercial video game," found that people who played at least 30 minutes of Mario 64 every day for two months actually grew significant amounts of new gray matter in three areas of the brain correlated with spatial navigation, strategic planning, working memory, and motor performance.
In other words: Playing Mario actually grew the subjects' brains. The control group, who didn't play, experienced no such growth. (There is no word on how much time the control group, who actually showed slight gray matter decrease — attributable to aging — had spent on gaming forums.)
According to the study's leader Simone Kühn, "The present study can demonstrate the direct causal link between video gaming and a volumetric brain increase. This proves that specific brain regions can be trained by means of video games."
The experimental group in the study played Mario 64 on the Nintendo DS, which, as the researchers note, shows the iconic plumber both from a third-person, behind-the-back perspective, and on the lower screen, from a bird's-eye, map-based view.
This dual perspective may explain the nature of the gray-matter growth.
The researchers found that increases in gray matter in the right hippocampus were associated with moving from egocentric to allocentric styles of navigation. That refers to the difference between comprehending objects in space by imagining them in relation to oneself (egocentric) and comprehending objects in space by mentally manipulating them in relation to each other (allocentric). It's easy to imagine how controlling a third-person avatar and seeing him from several perspectives might help develop the ability to navigate based on the position of external objects in the environment.
But what does the study mean in practical terms? This finding — that playing a video game can actually build brain matter — has obvious implications for education, but also exciting ones in health. According to the study, future research, based off of its findings, could focus on how games could be used to treat PTSD, schizophrenia, and neurodegenerative diseases.
The paper describes Mario 64 in rather dry terms, as "a three-dimensional platformer game in which a princess has to be saved." It turns out that the little plumber may be so much more.