Videogame Learning & Brain Size
Many a member of the older generations will tell you how video games are rotting our children’s brains, turning kids into button-pushing, drooling zombies. Such warnings linger on despite the fact that my generation – the one that desperately wanted a Nintendo for Christmas – turned out pretty okay…though obviously I’m a little biased. Heard less often are whispers that video games might actually be beneficial to players, helping them fine-tune hand-eye coordination, spatial learning and perceptual tasks. But such research is out there; last year, I wrote about research showing that video games and other parental bogeymen such as Facebook and texting might actually be improving people’s brains rather than destroying them.
Some new research in that community was released this week in the journal Cerebral Cortex, in a study that was rapidly misunderstood as merely Bigger Brains Mean Higher Video Game Scores. That’s not a false headline, but it does miss the subtle point. The authors, from 4 different schools including the University of Illinois and MIT, trained people without video game experience to play the vintage game Space Fortress. In those who learned the game faster (i.e. had achieved higher scores by the end of the training day), a brain area called the striatum was found to be larger on average than the slower learner’s striatum.
The striatum is actually a pretty interesting area, implicated in both movement (and movement disorders such as Parkinson’s and Huntington’s diseases) and addiction. The ventral striatum, including a region called the nucleus accumbens, is the focus of many addiction studies because it is the “reception area” for dopamine, the neurotransmitter increased by all drugs of abuse. With video games, the size of the ventral striatum correlated with early stages of learning, lending support to the idea that learning is enhanced by activities that are rewarding – or to put it more simply, fun.
That could explain why video games are powerful tools for improving a person’s attention and pereception, a phenomenon that researchers such as Daphne Bavelier at the University of Rochester are trying to corral to facilitate education. The study’s findings also may explain the limitations of that approach – some people appear to be resistant to the beneficial effects of video games, a fact that could be explained by brain architecture limiting their ability to learn the game. So next time I’m cursing these new-generation games for being so much harder to play than Super Mario Bros., perhaps I should blame my striatum instead of the developers.
Don’t Fear the Holes in Climate Science
Climate change isn’t directly related to biology or medicine, so I don’t touch on it very often here. But the hub-bub over the hacked e-mails from University of East Anglia last November, and the subsequent use of those e-mails as “evidence” that climate change is being overhyped by scientists, was on my radar as a truly worrying example of how the public’s misunderstanding of the scientific process is exploited. Now, there’s a must-read editorial in Nature this week that pretty much perfectly summarizes my queasiness over this issue, and how it can lead to political pressure that suppresses the march of climate science – or any science, for that matter.
Ironically, the article is about the “holes” in climate science, places where the current models don’t make sense, or where data (about climate in prehistoric times, for example) appears unreliable. These are the very weaknesses that climate change skeptics attack, but to scientists these aren’t “weaknesses” so much as they are problems that need to be worked out through further investigation. If the eventual resolution of those holes alters predictions about how the Earth’s climate is changing and how humans are contributing to that change, most scientists (I believe) would accept those alterations – true science, after all, is about displacing previous theories by coming up with new, more accurate ones. But if even raising questions about those holes causes the kind of insane furor that resulted from the East Anglia e-mails, these problems will never be solved. Here’s a dead-on quote on that very subject:
“Of course there are gaps in our knowledge about Earth’s climate system and its components, and yes, nothing has been made clear enough to the public,” says Gavin Schmidt, a climate modeller at NASA’s Goddard Institute for Space Studies in New York and one of the moderators and contributors to the influential RealClimate blog. “But this climate of suspicion we’re working in is insane. It’s really drowning our ability to soberly communicate gaps in our science when some people cry ‘fraud’ and ‘misconduct’ for the slightest reasons.”
Last week, 250 science bloggers, journalists, and scientists gathered for the SciOnline meeting in North Carolina. I was not one of them, but I followed from afar. Here are some nice recaps from Seed, the conference’s own blog, Laelaps, and an endeavor I first learned about from the conference coverage – the awesome Open Dinosaur Project. Gotta go next year.
A genetic linkage for social skills, related to one’s ability to recognize faces – I’m more of a name-forgetter myself.
A nice piece by AP science writer Seth Borenstein on why Haiti seems to be especially susceptible to natural disasters (found via the always useful Knight Science Journalism Tracker, which has links to other science journo takes on the Haiti situation)