Researchers at Stanford recently set out to study how the visual cortex of the brain develops from childhood to adulthood. Surprisingly, they decided the perfect way to test their hypothesis was to scan the brains of Pokémon players. They specifically wanted to see if there’s a difference between those who tried to catch ’em all as kids and those who did not. As it turns out, the answer is yes!
Mysteries of the brain
There is still much we don’t know about the development of the human brain. The way it organizes and stores information remains somewhat of a mystery, but we’re learning. Neuroscientist Jesse Gomez explains:
It’s been an open question in the field why we have brain regions that respond to words and faces but not to, say, cars. It’s also been a mystery why they appear in the same place in everyone’s brain.
Studies performed on monkeys by Harvard researchers partially illuminated this mystery. Monkeys who were exposed to specific objects at a young age developed a region of the visual cortex specifically catered to recognizing them. This exposure must happen at a young age while the brain is “particularly malleable and sensitive to visual experience.”
Gomez wanted to perform similar studies on humans, but that’s no simple task. You’d need a group of children who had experienced unique visual stimuli. Then you’d need to test them as adults to see if that stimuli impacted their brain development. Pondering this problem, Gomez realized the solution could be found in his own childhood love of Pokémon.
What was unique about Pokémon is that there are hundreds of characters, and you have to know everything about them in order to play the game successfully. The game rewards you for individuating hundreds of these little, similar-looking characters. I figured, ‘If you don’t get a region for that, then it’s never going to happen.’
The Pokémon theory
The Pokémon experiment allowed the team to test a visual theory called eccentricity bias. This theory suggests that how and where we store information depends largely on how we view it. Do you look at it straight on or with your peripheral vision? How much of your view does the object occupy? Because the original Pokémon games released on Game Boy, early players had mostly the same visual introduction to them. Stanford explains:
Playing Pokémon on a tiny screen means that the Pokémon characters only take up a very small part of the player’s center of view. The eccentricity bias theory thus predicts that preferential brain activations for Pokémon should be found in the part of the visual cortex that processes objects in our central, or foveal, vision.
Stanford researchers tested this theory by scanning the brains of 22 test subjects. Half had extensive experience playing Pokémon as children, and the other half had none. As expected, the Pokémon players experienced specific brain activity not found in the control group. In every case, the researchers located this activity in a brain fold located just behind our ears called the occipitotemporal sulcus. This fold seems to respond to information gathered from the center of the retina.
Gomez believes this research could push us closer to understanding conditions like dyslexia and face blindness. It looks like all those hours I logged in the Kanto region weren’t a waste of time after all!