(Editor’s Note: this is one of the Research Executive Briefs that included in SharpBrains’ market report. We asked leading neuroscientists to share findings and implications from their own recent published scientific studies in order to better forecast the development trajectory of emerging applications for cognitive health and brain fitness.)
Brief prepared by: Bjron Hubert-Wallander, Bjorn & Daphne Bavelier, Bavelier Brain & Vision Lab, University of Rochester.
1. Main findings:
Over the past ten years, research conducted by our lab and others has shown that playing fast-paced, action-packed videogames can lead to significant benefits in how well one pays attention and how well one sees. Specifically, our studies have shown that training for as little as ten hours on action video games (like Medal of Honor, Call of Duty, and Unreal Tournament) can lead to measurable enhancements in our ability to spread our attention around the visual field, our ability to keep track of multiple moving objects, and our ability to pick out relevant information from a rapid sequence of visual events. Most recently though, we have shown that action videogame training can also positively affect more basic aspects of vision such as our ability to resolve small details or see faint patterns.
Published in the journal Nature Neuroscience in 2009, one of our studies compared two groups of college-aged males, those who had a history of playing action videogames and those who had very rarely or had never played videogames at all. By analyzing both groups’ performance on a task designed to assess contrast sensitivity, the term for our ability to detect fine differences in brightness, we showed that the videogame-playing group’s visual sensitivity was higher than the non-gamer group. In order to rule out other potential explanations for this effect (perhaps those who enjoyed greater natural visual abilities are more likely to develop into action videogame players, for example), the second part of the study involved giving non-gamers experience on action videogames to see if this alone could improve their contrast sensitivity. In this part of the study, a pool of subjects who had never played action videogames before was tested on various aspects of their vision and then randomly split into two groups. One group was asked to play action videogames for a total of 50 hours over two and a half months while the other group was asked to play 50 hours of non-action videogames (slower paced strategy or social games such as The Sims or Restaurant Empire). Several days after the training ended, both groups’ vision was again tested. Those who played the action games showed improved contrast sensitivity while those who played control games did not. Thus, the improvement initially noted in habitual action videogame players is not due to environmental factors or preexisting differences between action gamers and non-gamers, but rather is caused by the action game-playing itself.
2. Context to understand those findings (i.e., why are they significant and relevant):
Though the ability to detect fine differences in shading may not sound impressive in itself, this ability underlies and has profound implications for nearly all other functions of everyday vision. Detecting differences in brightness allows us to identify lines and edges, which in turn allows us to perceive objects as distinct from their backgrounds. Doing this becomes much more difficult when visibility is reduced or in poor lighting. Thus, those who have greater contrast sensitivity can better see obstructions or other objects while driving at night or in fog, for example. They can read better, navigate better, identify objects better, and generally operate more effectively overall, especially in dim light.
Using a similar approach, we have previously found that playing action videogames also improves the resolution of vision. Our ability to resolve small details in clutter is a prime determinant of our ability to identify specific objects in a crowded visual environment. Reading, too, is an example of the kind of visual chore that is dependent upon visual resolution.
These works are the first in the scientific literature to demonstrate that visual abilities as fundamental to our everyday sight as contrast sensitivity or visual resolution can be improved by training. Importantly, these studies also establish that not all video games have the same effect on vision. If they did, we should have seen improvements in both the action game group and the strategy game group in the experiments we describe above, but this was not the case. This highlights the need for special attention in the choice of the games to be used when considering potential real-world applications.
3. Implications for healthcare, technology and/ or education:
Given the crucial role of contrast sensitivity and visual resolution in everyday vision and the vast number of people for whom this ability is compromised (by gradual age-related deterioration or by acute visual impairments such as amblyopia), the importance of this discovery is apparent. Poor vision is often treated by corrections in the optics of the eye, but optical problems only account for a portion of these cases; many times the problem lies in the brain. Since the improvements induced by action videogame playing take place in the brain, not in the eye, videogame training could make a difference above and beyond eye-based treatments for those with low vision. Thus, we suggest that interventions that include action videogame play as a component could be used to enhance the visual abilities (and thus the overall quality of life) of many who suffer from low vision. We are currently assessing the effectiveness of just such an intervention for both amblyopic patients and older adults.
Just as many suffer from impaired vision, many others are in professions that require or benefit enormously from excellent vision. For example, aircraft pilots (both military and commercial) must be able to see relevant objects in the sky and on the ground in order to perform their jobs effectively, especially at night or in cloudy skies. When flying at hundreds of miles per hour thousands of feet above the ground, the consequences of not noticing obstructions or enemy aircraft in time to act on them can be catastrophic. Since excellent vision and visual attention are important skills for many professions (military personnel, taxi drivers, firefighters, and most athletes, to cite a few), it is likely that a large portion of the population could benefit from the enhancements discussed here. We envision that our findings can ultimately be harnessed by training regimens that alleviate visual deficits as well as bring super-normal visual capabilities to those whose safety depends on it. We hope to see such applications in the not-too-distant future.
- Li, R., Polat, U., Makous, W. & Bavelier, D. (2009). Enhancing the contrast sensitivity function through action video game playing. Nature Neuroscience, 12(5), 527–8.
- Green, C.S. & Bavelier, D. (2007). Action video game experience alters the spatial resolution of vision. Psychological Science, 18(1), 88–94.