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Video games give kids dementia?


As much as I enjoy silly people, I really dislike jumping on the silly person bandwagon here but I feel compelled to counter nonsense with real sense.

As Vaughan Bell over at mindhacks has repeatedly noted, Baroness Greenfield of Oxford likes to turn to the press to talk about how video games, the internet, and other generally fun things are ruining the brains of our children.

In response, Ben Goldacre has made a simple request of the Baroness: publish your findings in a peer-reviewed study.

This has yet to happen.

Over the years many reasonable, intelligent, knowledgeable, practicing scientists like Vaughan, Ben, Dorothy Bishop, NeuroSkeptic, Dean Burnett, and others have tried to counter the Baroness's claims through appeal, humor, sarcasm, etc.

But the Baroness keeps making public claims to the media such as, "Several scientific studies have suggested that playing an excessive number of computer games or spending too much time surfing the internet can have a physical impact on the brain," with the implication that this change is bad.

But truth is better than fear, and neuroscientist Daphne Bavelier recounts almost a decade of her research regarding the effects of action video games on the brain and cognition in her recent TED talk. Yes, they change the brain. But this change can be good (edit: softened the language here from "is good", since this is a complex issue).

The reality? Action video games, such as first-person shooters, improve attention, visual perception, cognitive control, and a host of other executive functions. This research began with a accidental finding by C. Shawn Green that he and his video-game playing friends were performing much better on attention tasks than non video game playing control subjects. This culminated in their 2004 Nature paper, "Action video game modifies visual selective attention". Since then their research has progressed quite well.

And is peer-reviewed.

Dr. Bavelier gives a fantastic talk, and it's one that I've added to my now-growing list of good neuroscience TED talks.

Watch the video below to see the real scientific evidence regarding the effects of video games on the brain. I'd love to know what evidence the Baroness's has to counter.

Green, C., & Bavelier, D. (2003). Action video game modifies visual selective attention Nature, 423 (6939), 534-537 DOI: 10.1038/nature01647


  1. Anonymous13:44

    Brad, just curious...has any research been conducted after 2004? I can imagine that video graphics and sounds have improved since game engines and their software framework have changed too.

    1. Definitely! Quite a lot, actually.

      Dr. Bavelier has published quite a bit:

      As has C. Shawn Green:

      And of course, many others.

  2. Another related area is the work going on at Berkeley/Harvard with amblyopia, which showed that plasticity along the lines of a critical period could be reinstated during particular types of video game play (I wrote about this stuff for Nature: http://www.nature.com/news/neurodevelopment-unlocking-the-brain-1.10925). The whole idea that "changes to the brain" are inherently bad is adding a moral dimension to anatomical connectivity and circuit function that belies common sense (I think, anyways ;) ).

    1. Ha yeah, some of that is Michael Silver's work. He's a friend of mine. Really solid stuff. And yes, I agree that the subtle, implied morality of the phrasing is very odd for a scientific topic.

  3. Bruno Campello de Souza15:17

    Myself and some colleagues have published an article in 2010 on the impacts of MMORPGs (e.e. World of Warcraft, Guildwars) on cognitive performance, finding some evidence of positive cognitive benefits (higher levels of logical-numerical performance, and better scholastic ability), whereas there was no sign of a downside, not even in terms of Internet or game addiction.

    I also have developed a model of human intelligence suggesting mechanisms that predict that insertion into the so-called "Digital Revolution" is associated to significant cognitive advantages. Such model has been tested multiple times, with the evidence always pointing towards confirmation of the theory, as published in peer-reviewed journals.

    You can check the papers at:


    1. Nice! I don't suppose you have a link to an open PDF version of that article, in case anyone else wants to read it, do you? While I have access to it, most people don't, nor will they probably want to spend $20 to get it.

  4. Bruno Campello de Souza15:40

    Oops! Forgot to add one link:


  5. Oopsie Daisy16:56

    Unfortunately a lot of people have trouble replicating this work. A *lot of people*. The ones listed here under Green & Bavelier are just a subset of the people who have been unable to duplicate this work.


    It would be nice if there were plenty of generalized transfer from things like playing videogames, but for the most part, these flashy results just don't seem to be holding up.

    1. Fascinating.

      My first thought is, "good, peer review is sort of doing its job," although I'm a bit disheartened that I hadn't heard about these failures to replicate. Though I had read Mo's Nature piece on the topic.

      My second thought was that at least these failures to replicate don't seem to be showing negative effects, just null effects. Which is still against the Baroness's arguments that video games "cause dementia" in children.

  6. If you'd like to learn more about some of the problems with the published evidence for benefits of gaming (in addition to the published and unpublished failures to replicate) here's a paper Walter Boot and I wrote: http://www.frontiersin.org/cognition/10.3389/fpsyg.2011.00226/abstract

    It was the basis for Mo's piece. (and it hints at some bigger issues with the published findings).

    One reason you might not have run across the failures to replicate is that the groups publishing positive effects rarely cite them.

    As you note, the negative findings and the questions about the positive effects of gaming do not mean that gaming is harmful.

  7. Nice post....i really like this post.....thanks for sharing...

  8. I think playing excessive video games is harmful to all ages, but for fun and enjoyment it's not harmful to play little.