Do you suck at StarCraft II? Do the intricate combo moves of Street Fighter escape you? Maybe you need an MRI. Researchers have found a method for scanning the brain that could predict how well you play video games.
Some of us are just better gamers than other. Mind you I’m not putting myself in that group. I spend rounds of Halo shouting obscenities at the screen. I’m talking about folks like my nephew, who runs around killing his opponents with a sniper rifle, never once stopping to line up his shot. The little jerk.
Maybe he’s not simply a better player. Maybe his basal ganglia is just better developed than mine.
The basal ganglia (also known as the cerebral nuclei) is a group of structures – located in the middle of your brain associated with learning new motor skills (joystick wiggling) as well as performing tasks that require quick strategizing and rapid attention shifts.
Researchers scanned the brains of a group of volunteers using an MRI (magnetic resonance imaging) machine and a process called multivoxel pattern analysis. They analysed the patterns of a particular type of MRI signal, called T2, in the basal ganglia. Then they had the test subjects play a video game.
The game in question was Space Fortress, a difficult, strategic affair developed by the University of Illinois, designed to test player’s real-world cognitive skills. The test subjects, having no prior experience with video games, were then given 20 hours to learn the game.
Each test subject’s scores increased after the learning period, but to a varying degree. Using the data gathered during the MRI scans, researchers were able to predict between 55 and 68 per cent of the variance in the 34 test subjects.
To put it simply, the researchers could tell how well each player would perform before they even began learning the game.
The strength of the researcher’s method lies in looking at MRI images, something science has had access to for decades, in a brand new way, illustrating one of my favourite things about science: There’s always room for a fresh pair of eyes.
“We take a fresh look at MRI images that are recorded routinely to investigate brain function,” said Ohio State University psychology professor Dirk Bernhardt-Walther, who designed and performed the computational analysis together with Illinois electrical and computer engineering graduate student Loan Vo. “By analysing these images in a new way, we find variations among participants in the patterns of brain activity in their basal ganglia.”
Take heart, my fellow challenged gamers. Just because your brain says you won’t be good at video games doesn’t mean you are destined for a life filled with fail. As we learned yesterday, the brain is a malleable thing, and there’s always rebooting.
“Our data suggest that some persistent physiological and or neuroanatomical difference is actually the predictor of learning,” Kramer said.
The findings should not be interpreted to mean that some people are destined to succeed or fail at a given task or learning challenge, however, Kramer said.
“We know that many of these components of brain structure and function are changeable.”