Daphne Bavelier gives a nice overview of the cognitive benefits of video games

If you’re familiar with the research on the cognitive benefits of video games, you can probably skip this one. If not, here’s a good way for you to spend the next 18 minutes, and maybe break a few preconceptions you might have about the usefulness of gaming. Daphne Bavelier talks about how playing action video games like Call of Duty and Black Ops can improve various cognitive capacities.

I was particularly surprised by these two interesting facts on gaming in general:

  • The average age of a gamer is 33 (makes sense — in the 80s, games were played almost exclusively by kids. How old are those kids now?)
  • One month after the release of COD: Black Ops, the game had been played for 600 million hours. That’s 68,000 years.

There are a few problems with this research though, which I discussed here.

The problem with the gaming/cognitive functioning link

As someone who spent countless hours in his youth playing Doom, Street Fighter II and other effective ways of making time speed up, I really want the link between computer gaming and enhanced cognitive functioning, which I’ve mentioned before, to be true. It would validate every hadoken, justify every gib. But although the evidence is promising – encouraging even – it’s not quite there yet. Walter Boot, Daniel Blakely and Daniel Simons published a review in 2011 pointing out the distance we have yet to go before we can be sure about StarCraft’s place in our cognitive training routine.

Remember these guys?

Firstly, we have the problem of demand characteristics in some of the non-experimental studies — the ones that take a group of gamers and compare them to non-gamers on various cognitive abilities. Gamers need to come out on top here to even consider video games as cognitive enhancers, of course, but even if they do, it doesn’t mean that games are causing the difference. Perhaps the gamers had these cognitive advantages to begin with, and that’s why they take so well to the games. Or perhaps they were more motivated to perform well during the testing.

Many such studies specifically advertise for experienced gamers. Other research has shown that if you think you’re likely to perform well on a certain task, you’re sometimes more likely to do so. This problem is particularly relevant when you consider that many gamers will be aware of the news reports linking gaming to cognitive enhancement, and may have some idea that this is what the researcher is testing.

The way around this is normally to do an experiment — take a group of people, preferable non-gamers, and give them a battery of cognitive test. Then randomly split them into two groups, tell one group to play video games for a few weeks and the other group not to, then give the same tests again. You’ll then see if the video gamers have improved relative to the non-gaming group.

But the same problems exist as with the non-experimental studies. The gamers know they have been gaming and might deduce that they are supposed to perform better on the cogntive tests in a follow up. This is why placebo control groups are used — both groups would play video games, but the placebo group would play one that is not expected to bring any cognitive benefits, usually a slower paced game like Tetris. However, if the tests used more closely resemble the action video game than Tetris, you can make the case that the expectancy effect is still in play. The design of the experiment is not sufficient to pry the two possibilities apart conclusively (for example, by asking participants whether they expected to improve, although even this has it’s own problems), even though it might make more sense intuitively that the video games are working.

Further muddying the waters, some studies have failed to find a difference between gaming and non-gaming groups in both experimental and non-experimental tests.

Where to go from here

This might be disappointing, but there is some evidence of cognitive benefits caused by video games. We just don’t know why, or what conditions or individual differences are most amenable to such effects. Boot, Blakely and Simons propose that future studies should meet the following criteria (no study yet published has managed to meet them all):

  • Covert recruitment (participants aren’t told the nature of the study)
  •  The paper should detail the recruitment method
  •  Experimental studies should be conducted
  •  Participants should be screened for familiarity with the idea that gaming brings cognitive benefits, and whether they expected the gaming they did in the study to enhance their test results
  •  The placebo control games should offer equal expectancy effects on the performance of the cognitive tests
  •  Neuroimaging should be used to help pry apart expectancy effects versus actual cognitive changes

If gaming has any chance of non-domain specific cogntive enhancement, the results could be used to help fight age-related cognitive decline, help people in their personal development (working memory may be more closely linked to academic success than IQ), and give teenagers the world over valid excuses not to get off the PlayStation. So it’s worth spending the time andmoney getting to the bottom of this.

Now if you’ll excuse me I have to go play Call of Duty. For science.


Can being an expert undermine your performance?

As with bilingualism, it’s generally assumed that being an expert completely beneficial and has no downsides to performance. However we know that expertise tends to be domain specific, for example, chess grand masters can memorise chess boards far more quickly and easily that novices, but on standard cognitive tests tend to fare no better. In fact, if you arrange chess pieces to positions that would never be encountered in an actual game, again their recall is no better than chess novices, showing just how domain-specific expertise can be. But surely within a given domain, expertise can only be beneficial?

Unlucky Kasparov

Castel, McCabe, Roediger and Heitman suggest not. They gave 40 students a memory test consisting of eleven animal names and eleven body parts. The twist here was that all the animal names were also NFL team names, like dolphins, colts, seahawks and bears. After the memory test, participants were given an NFL quiz, and the group was split into two, those scoring above and below the median on this test, to give high expertise and low expertise groups in the domain of NFL knowledge.

The results on the memory test for the two groups was then compared. Indeed, the NFL experts remembered more of the animal names than the non-experts, while there was no difference between groups on the body parts test. So far so good, however, the researchers also tested for incorrect answers — NFL animal team names and body parts that were not part of the original test. The results indicated that the experts were much more likely to make incorrect guesses than the non-experts. The authors suggest that this represents memory errors, the domain-relevant information of the experts got in the way of their accurate recall of the animal names. Since there was no difference between groups in body part experience, false answers were about even between groups on that test.

Is this really the case though? Or was it that the experts consciously noticed that the animal names belonged to the NFL teams and simply reeled off as many as they could remember during recall. Perhaps it was not a case of the existing schema interfering with memory, but a recognition that they already know these names, so why bother taking the extra effort to think back and recall? Why not just reel off my schema? I wonder if the results would be the same if participants were told that they would score 1 point for a correct guess, but minus 1 point for an incorrect guess, which might increase the incentive to actually recall. In other words, maybe this effect is a conscious strategy used in situations where there’s no cost to an incorrect answer.

However, there are other studies that support the authors’ conclusions, which I haven’t read so perhaps my question has been answered before or since. Either way, it’s an interesting thought that the knowledge base acquired by experts might be detrimental in certain tasks.

Castel AD, McCabe DP, Roediger HL 3rd, & Heitman JL (2007). The dark side of expertise: domain-specific memory errors. Psychological science, 18 (1), 3-5 PMID: 17362368

The cognitive benefits of playing video games

It’s often said that the youth of our society wastes their time playing video games; ostensibly a purely diversionary activity with no inherent merit. However, as someone with a youth misspent in this way, I have to disagree. There are many ways I feel video game-playing may serve me well in the future. For example, should powerful aliens invade our planet and challenge our species to a Street Fighter II tournament, killing all those who they defeat, I for one would fancy my chances. However on a more mundane level, research published in Nature indicated that video game brings cognitive benefits that transfer to activities other than the game itself.

Waste of time or brain trainer? credit: blindfutur3

Flanker compatibility

In this test, participants are distracted on a task by stimuli, which they have to ignore. The task becomes progressively more difficult, so it’s a good way of testing attentional capacity. When video game players were tested against non-players, they performed better on this task, suggesting they have greater attentional capacity.

Enumeration task

In this second task, squares flash on a screen briefly, and participants simply have to say how many there are. If there’s a small number of squares, you just ‘know’ how many there are. This is called ‘subitizing.’ As more and more squares are displayed you eventually lose your ability to subitize and must count the squares manually.

Video game players could subitize greater number of squares than non players (4.9 vs 3.3 on average), again this is consistent with the idea that video games bring beneficial effects — or at least, that video game players possess these benefits. In this case, the benefit is being able to focus on more distinct objects at once.

Widening the training zone

The next task was the “Useful Field of View” task, where the aim is to locate a certain target amongst a field of distracting ones. However, the twist here is that the field of view is extended to three eccentricities — 10, 20, and 30 degrees. The field of view when playing video games typically reaches around 20 degrees, so this is a good way to see whether the attentional benefits video game players have extends beyond the range of view they experience whilst playing. The results indicated that the players outperformed non-players at all ranges.

As with the previous tests, this is tricky to interpret. On one hand it could indicate that video games bring attentional benefits, and that these benefits extend beyond the normal field of vision experienced while playing. On the other hand, it could simply indicate that some people take to video game playing because they have better attentional qualities to begin with. Because this task is further from the conditions of the video game playing itself, you might reason that it is more in line with the latter. It’s impossible to say because this was a quasi experiment — there was no randomisation of group assignment.

Quick thinking – the attentional blink task

A common aspect of the games played by the participants is the need to act fast under pressure (see below for a list of games). To see if there was a difference on this ability between video game players and non-players, a variation on the attentional blink task was used.

In this task, a stimuli is displayed, followed 200-500 ms later by another. Typically, people have trouble processing the second stimuli because of fixation on the first. In the variation, participants had to detect a certain following stimuli from a sequence which included a few distractors. Again, the video game players out-performed the non-players.

Incidentally, experienced meditators also do better on this task.

Experimental task

As mentioned earlier, it’s impossible to determine cause and effect conclusively with this type of study. By selecting specific groups (players versus non-players) instead of randomising, you never know if you’re simply selecting groups who differ on the variable you’re studying to begin with. For instance, do video games attract or create people with enhanced attentional abilities.

To get around this, and experimental task was performed, where a group was told to go play an action video game, while another went off to play a puzzle game. The action video game players did better on the enumeration, useful field of view, and attentional blink tasks after training.

Video games are beneficial for attention?

While these results are consistent with the idea that video game playing brings cognitive benefits, the studies do have some limitations. Mainly, the sample size was pretty low. The enumeration task had the highest number of participants, and even that had only 13 per group. The others has only eight or nine per group.

For the quasi-experiments, this makes it even more likely that the results were due to the samples selected, despite the fact that they were highly statistically significant. For the experiment, the same applies. The significance levels were higher in the latter but that’s expected given it was only for 10 days.

Also, the transfer is fairly similar. Action video games and these tasks still involve sitting and looking at a screen. We don’t know if the results would be different in other situations in more natural settings. But overall it’s nice that by video game playing might, possibly, have benefits beyond helping me defeat an invasion by 2D beat-em-up-obsessed aliens.

Which games did they play?

In the tests comparing video game players with non-video game players, here’s a list of games that the players were into. Note that this study is from 2003!

  • Grand Theft Auto 3
  • Half-Life
  • Counter-Strike
  • Crazy Taxi
  • Team Fortress Classic
  • 007
  • Spider-Man
  • Halo
  • Marvel vs Capcom
  • Roguespear
  • Super Mario Cart


Green, C. S., & Bavelier, D. (2003, May 29). Action video game modifies visual selective attention. Nature, 423, 534 –537. pdf

Piracetam – The nootropic with many uses

Piracetam is a nootropic – a compound used to improve mental performance in some way. They’re often called (and sold as) “smart drugs.” The name derives from the Greek words nous and trepein, meaning “mind” and “to turn” respectively. Or so Wikipedia says at least. You may be familiar with the concept of smart drugs as a result of seeing Face from the A-Team taking the fictional (but highly desirable nonetheless) drug “NZT” in Limitless.

Piractam: Intelligence in one gulp? (or two if you’re a wussy who can’t swallow tablets)

Piracetam is a prescription drug given for a range of reasons, but it only reached true fame and stardom after people on the internet started saying it made them smarter. Observe:

“I am not used to have this much energy and now I could do things more easily. I even started to multitask, which is close to impossible in my regular state of mind. Now, ideas are popping up spontaneously and it is no effort to execute the corresponding actions. I also feel more self-esteem, confidence and feel in The Zone: Flow. I feel attentive, centered and motivated. My eyes are more energetic, powerful, wide open and present. I have glowing blushes on my cheeks, a smile on my face and I feel happy, it IS just great!!!” (source)

Don’t get too excited. I’m in the skeptical camp on this one, especially when it comes to spectacular reports like this. And yes this does come from experience, of this any many many other smart drugs (but more on that another time).

Effects on cognitive disorder

Clever marketing for the Limitless film. Sadly, it’s not actually available! (photo credit)

A good few studies have observed beneficial effects on people with age-related cognitive disorder, such as improved performance on memory tests. It might also reduce the deterioration that people normally experience when its taken over longer periods. According to one meta-analysis, 60% of patients taking piracetam saw improvements, while only 30% of those taking placebo saw improvements.

This is well enough, but note that you can’t simply generalise results observed on clinical populations to healthy populations and expect the same results. In other words, just because it helps people with lower than normal cognitive function see improvements, doesn’t mean it will help people with normal function get even better. This is a general rule that you can apply to any intervention or treatment – the jury is out until it has been tested empirically. Whether or not piracetam actually works in healthy individuals is worth a separate post in itself, so I’ll leave that for now. But there are reasons to be skeptical, as we’ll see.

Other Clinical Uses

Not that you care, but piracetam also has shown itself to be a beneficial treatment for vertigo, cortical myoclonus, dyslexia, and sickle cell anemia, to varying degrees of effectiveness.


The dose given therapeutically and in research varies depending on the condition. For cognitive impairment, 2.4g and 4.8g per day are common doses used in tests. For cortical myoclonus doses up to 24g per day are reported.


Piracetam is often noted as being one of the least toxic compounds ever discovered, if not the least. No toxicity has been found in animal studies after administering 10g per kilogram of the stuff. Which, for the average self-experimental nootropic user, probably amounts to more than he can afford. Some side-effects have been noted, less than 2% report nervousness, weight gain, depression and other symptoms (that’s less than 2% for each one), though I’m not sure what the severity of this was.

It is not recommended in people with renal disease, since that’s the way its excreted, and it’s not recommended for pregnant or lactating women. If you’re a pregnant or lactating man, well there’s no evidence for your particular case but if I were you I wouldn’t risk it.



Pharmacodynamics and other more technical stuff

Piracetam influences a range of neurotransmitter systems (cholinergic, serotoninergic, noradrenergic and glutamatergic) and yet has no affinity for any of the receptors in these systems.

Think of receptors as locks and neurotansmitters as keys. When enough keys go into the locks, an electrical signal is passed along the neuron until it reaches the next synapse. Piracetam’s “key” doesn’t fit any of the locks in the systems where these neurotransmitters operate, yet still seems to have an effect on them. So it somehow works indirectly to this end.

It may be that piracetam increases the number of receptors, or how efficient they are. Your money’s on the latter though, since membrane fluidity affects receptor binding, and that’s the likely way that Piracetam works.

As noted earlier, Piracetam may have better (or perhaps may only have) effects where there’s reduced membrane fluidity to begin with. Another example of this is its ability to decrease membrane fusion and damage, which has been observed in studies of long-term changes in the brain due to alcohol use (in rates).

Mechanism of Action

Piracetam is a GABA derivative but its mode of action is thought to be completely different. In fact, exactly how piracetam works is unknown, though if you had to bet, put your money on its ability to restore cell membrane fluidity. That’s cells in general, not any localised area, so this idea fits with piracetam’s apparent Jack-of-all-trades effects.

The lipid bilayer of cells can vary in state from a more fluid state where the phospholipid chains are moving more, to a crystalline state where the tails of the lipids are straight, extended, and tightly packed. However, the membrane still keeps its general shape. This fluidity is important for loads of other processes, like receptor binding. When fluidity is worse, so are neurotransmission, neuroplasticity and neuroprotection. These are three things you generally want more of if you want to be Limitless.

That said, some evidence suggests that piracetam has a greater effect on membrane fluidity at times when normal fluidity is compromised, or perhaps even only at these times. For example, during ageing. For instance one study found increases in fluidity in old mice, but not younger ones with normal fluidity to begin with. If you’re skeptical about mice studies, another study found the same thing in Alzheimer’s patients.

Bradley Cooper definitely wasn’t taking this stuff in those oddly transparent tablets, but it does have some uses. Whether its useful as a nootropic isn’t completely clear (unlike NZT, which is completely clear). Certainly not in comparison to other methods of cognitive enhancement.


I got 90% of this from Bengt Winblad’s excellent 2005 review Piracetam: A Review of Pharmacological Properties and Clinical Uses, CNS Drug Reviews, 11(2) 169-182.

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