UI researchers use gamers' brains to analyze learning

URBANA – Maybe practice makes perfect when it comes to baking a loaf of bread. But it's your brain size that counts a lot when it comes to scoring high on a video game, researchers have found.

A study conducted at the University of Illinois looked at MRI brain scans of men and women trained on "Space Fortress," an approximately 30-year-old video game developed at the UI, and discovered that how well gamers performed could be predicted by the size of certain regions of their brains.

The findings shed some light on what had been contradictory findings in past research: That expert video gamers perform better than inexperienced players on some attention and perception tasks, but giving novice players 20 or more hours of video game practice didn't necessarily improve how well they did on the same tasks.

The study was conducted by Arthur Kramer, a psychology professor at the UI Beckman Institute for Advanced Science and Technology, and researchers at the University of Pittsburgh, MIT and Florida State University.

Kramer said researchers started with the question of whether bigger is better when it comes to brain structures and learning.

What they found was that players with a larger nucleus accumbens, the pleasure and reward center of the brain, did better in the early stages of game training.

Players with a larger caudate nucleus and a larger putamen – parts of the brain involved with motor learning – did best on the variable priority training involving half the study participants. In that type of training, gamers were asked to periodically shift their priorities, improving skills in one area while trying to succeed in other tasks, the UI said. The other half of the participants were asked to work on getting the best overall scores while also paying attention to the different components in the game.

The 39 participants in the study were all healthy adults ages 18-28 who had spent less than three hours a week playing video games in the past three years. Researchers found that nearly one-fourth of the achievement of the participants learning the game could be predicted by measuring the sizes of the three brain structures, according to the UI.

The study represents the first time research has shown that the size of brain regions can predict performance and learning rates on a video game. And it told researchers a lot about how the brain works trying to learn a complex task, said Kirk Erickson, a psychology professor at the University of Pittsburgh who served as the lead author on the study.

Why explore that with a video game? Because people spend a lot of time on their computers these days, Kramer said.

"What we were doing with a video game is, we were trying to move a little closer to the complexity of the real world," he said.

The study was funded by the Office of Naval Research. Kramer said the Navy, just like any corporation in the U.S., is interested in learning, transferring skills and how people can be trained in the most efficient way.

Researchers said the study findings can be used to predict which people will learn certain tasks faster, and the information may have applications in both education and treating people with disabilities and dementia.

How about using the information to make yourself a better gamer?

In other words, are you stuck with the brain structure sizes you were born with, or can you enlarge them through your behavior?

Kramer said that's not entirely clear yet.

"We do not know, at this point, the degree to which the size of these structures are influenced by nature versus nurture," he said. "However, we do know from a variety of studies, including studies in our lab, that the size of different brain structures can be influenced by experience."

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