Is your brain a Pokedex?

Did gamers who played Pokemon in the 90s alter their brains?
16 July 2019

Interview with 

Jesse Gomez, Neuroscientist at Stanford University


A sign displaying Pokemon characters.


Neuroscientists from Stanford University  recruited 11 self-proclaimed Pokémon masters and 11 Pokémon-newbies and monitored part of the brain called the occipitotemporal sulcus. The brain region activated more strongly in gamer brains when presented with Pokémon pictures.

Chris Berrow spoke to Jesse Gomez - one of the neuroscientists who led the research.

Jesse - You know it turns out that as humans we're very social creatures. And so we're very good at things like recognizing each other's faces and in childhood we learn how to read and we get very good at reading. It turns out that these skills that we perfected our childhood actually have a lasting impact on our brain and in our visual cortex especially we develop these regions in the temporal lobe. Kind of just behind our ears that help us recognize things like faces and words. What's interesting to us though as a neuroscientist is that these brain regions always kind of pop up in the same brain folds across people. So let's still kind of an interesting mystery ties and you know the most definitive way to go about figuring out why they're organized the way they are and to kind of differentiate the theories is to you know have people can become an expert with a new visual stimulus that's kind of different from pieces and words and see if you get a new brain region. So it turns out Pokemon were excellent because they were something that kids learned in childhood. And you know it was like this natural experiment that happened in the 90s that I realised would have been like you know it's gonna be like a perfect experiment. So that's why we ended up using a placebo.

Chris - And people just happened to be learning this because they were really keen to learn about Pokémon and it just so happens that that's useful for your research which is quite amazing to me because people really wanted to learn all of what 150 hundred fifty one two of the original Pokemon you know.

Jesse - Yeah. And yeah the game was perfect because it was very motivated. Even the TV show if you remember it. Yeah. You know kind of motivated you for recognizing them. They would have like blacks the way. I mean like who's that Pokémon. So it was kind of this crazy like environment that just really motivated people for like knowing all these intricate differences between these hundreds of visually similar things. And what was super useful as an intern no just kept cranking out these games in the pokey my company just kept you know cranking these games out and so now there's almost a thousand I think by the end of this year. And so it's yeah. Yeah it's incredible.

Chris - It's interesting that because obviously it shapes part of the brain. This learning experience the desire to learn all the Pokemon is there's some evidence because you know parents will always say my parents used to say to me as a kid if you watch too much TV if you play too many computer games your eyes will go square it will melt your brain stuff like this is there any evidence that actually this is a bad thing that your brain is being shaped by a game biased cartoon series.
Jesse - I think a parent's worry was that if they're watching TV or playing video games then like they're not learning math they're not doing homework and I think that's probably where a lot of that fear comes from. And you know there was a craze especially in the 90s like there's violence in videogames and it's like affecting people and you know I don't think there's ever been a definitive study to show that there was anything negative about this. You know if anything I think it's very interesting because it suggests that at least in visual cortex where we were studying you know it's capable of representing more visual stimuli than we thought because previously people have observed you know special regions for like words faces numbers bodies in places like things that are important for us to recognize. And so the fact that you can get an additional one suggests that the brain's you know capable of more than we thought and we're probably just limited by you know how much time you have to experience stuff in childhood.

Chris - Gotcha OK. And are you a Pokémon fan yourself I mean or is it just something that happens to be perfect for what you were looking at.

Jesse - Yeah. No I was a huge Pokémon fan. I think that's what helped kind of motivate the. The thought of why it would work because the original experiment and motivated it was done in monkeys and they kind of taught monkeys new like Helvetica characters and Tetris figures and showed that they get new brain regions. And I was like oh this would be really cool to do in humans but you know like trapping kids in a lab for like for what could potentially be hundreds of hours to teach them a new experiment it would just wasn't feasible. So for a few days I was kind of bummed and then you know I still play, I think they come out you know they still come up with games and I watch the movie and everything. And it was just. Yeah. It just dawned on me I was like Oh my God this you know like the 90s already did this experiment is it perfect.


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