On August 10th, 2017 we learned about

For a healthier hippocampus, consider playing more Mario

Is Mario better than Call of Duty? By and large, yes, but beyond the likely enjoyment of playing these games, researchers are finding that that Mario games, or at least the “3D platforming” games like Super Mario 64, may be better for the health of your hippocampus. You want a robust hippocampus for a variety reasons, starting with its role in managing your long-term memory and processing emotional information. As it turns out, exploring complex maps found in these platformers seems to boost the hippocampus, while twitchier action games like Call of Duty or Killzone seem to have the exact opposite effect, reducing the hippocampus in favor of other brain structures.

Learning styles matter

This study started with MRI brain scans of regular gamers, sorted by what kind of game they usually play. Test participants were also asked to navigate a virtual maze to see what kind of learning styles they generally adopted. This stage of testing found a correlation between people who predominantly played high-speed action games and response learning types. In the maze, this meant that these participants were more likely to navigate by memorizing and reproducing patterns of movement, even when those patterns become very repetitive. On the other hand, people who spent more time playing 3D platform games were more likely to be spatial learners, building more of mental map by noting landmarks and spatial relationships.

Researchers then wondered if there was some self-selection going on here. Maybe people who were naturally better at playing out wrote patterns liked the games that rewarded those skills more, and vice versa. To check, a second set of test subjects with less gaming experience were asked to play 90 hours of one type of game or the other, with brain scans being taken before and after to see if any structural changes took place as a result. Indeed, there was a change, but the exact change seemed to depend on just what kind of learner a player was to begin with.

Gameplay that reshapes the brain

Response learners showed a marked reduction in their hippocampus after 90 hours of Call of Duty, but an increase in their caudate nucleus. The caudate nucleus is a separate brain structure that’s associated with reward systems, impulse control processing environmental feedback. Researchers suspect that these action games require very little spatial processing but instead exercise functions found in this second brain structure. That would be fine, except the accompanying loss of gray matter in the hippocampus is slightly concerning, at least for response learners.

Spatial learners may play these first-person shooters very differently, as their brains didn’t show the same shift in resources from the hippocampus to caudate nucleus. Somehow they got a boost in their hippocampus playing both action games and 3D platformers. Response learners’ hippocampi also benefited from some time collecting stars and shines with Mario, making those games the safer option for both player types. So if your memory struggles with complex spatial relationships, Super Mario 64 may help (but the twitch-oriented Super Mario Run probably won’t.)

My third grader asked: What about Minecraft?

While not mentioned in this study, it would seem like the slow pace and sprawling, unmarked world of Minecraft would really give your hippocampus a workout. The paper didn’t list every game they compared, but Call of Duty is somewhat infamous for its linear maps that require very little thought to navigate, and so anything that you can actually get lost in is probably giving the gray matter outside your caudate nucleus a bit more stimulation.

Source: Why ‘Super Mario’ May Be Good for Your Brain, But ‘Call of Duty’ Isn’t by Dave Roos, Seeker

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