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Science: Skilled Gamers Have Bigger Brains (but Smaller Necks, Bodies?)

For the first time, researchers have shown brains-size linked to a real-world skill.

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Gah! The last thing the world needs is another thing allowing gamers to brag about “pwning.” But science–and not just energy drinks and Cheetos–stands behind this one: Researchers at MIT have shown the better performance in video games is linked to having a bigger brain.

Specifically, the better a person is at video games, the bigger their striatum tends to be. That portion of the brain is nestled inside the cerebral cortex–the lobe responsible for higher brain functions. And the study adds ballast to the hypothesis that the striatum is linked to how well a person is able to refine their motor skills, learn new skills, and invent useful strategies for a changing environment.

According to Kirk Erickson, a
professor of psychology at the University of Pittsburgh and lead author
on the study, this is the first time–ever–that the size of a specific region of the brain has been linked to better performance and learning in a real-world task.

Here’s how the study was conducted. Study participants with minimal videogame experience were asked to play a game, Space Fortress (pictured at left). Researchers then scanned two parts of the striatum, the nucleus accumbens and the putamen. The first region deals with the pleasure the brain feels at achieving a specific goal. People who were well-endowed in that region did better in early stages of the game, when they were still learning. Those that were gifted in both regions did best at both learning the game, and adapting to its changing complexity.

The point being that now, researchers can guess, by simply looking at a brain scan, who’s going to better at learning certain skills and adapting those skills over time.

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They can also guess who’s going to lay waste to foes on Modern Warfare 2. Freaky. Does this mean that MRI machines will become crucial screening tools at the local Army recruiter office?

[Via MIT]

About the author

Cliff is director of product innovation at Fast Company, founding editor of Co.Design, and former design editor at both Fast Company and Wired.

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