The Millisecond Advantage

Better Brainspeed...the advantage of speed

NEW YORK (Reuters Health) - Video game players may spend a lot of time on the couch, but when they're ready to go out they can find their keys quicker than the rest of us, a study suggests.

Researchers found that gamers who devote much of their free time to Grand Theft Auto and Super Mario may be able to scan their environment and spot the target of their search more quickly than non-gamers can.

In experiments with college students who were either hard-core video game players or novices, the researchers found that players were quicker to detect target objects on a busy computer screen than their peers were.

The findings, published in the journal Acta Psychologica, suggest that the vigilant watchfulness video games require makes for quicker visual processing.

Gamers' brains don't appear to have any specialized search strategy, they're just faster, explained lead study author Dr. Alan Castel, a post-doctorate fellow in psychology at Washington University in St. Louis.

Specifically, both groups of students were similar when it came to the search principle of "inhibition of return." According to Castel, this means that when people look for their keys, they look in one place, and if the keys aren't there, they will look in a number of other spots before giving the original location a second go-around.

In the experiments, he told Reuters Health, video gamers used the same search strategy as non-gamers did. "They just executed it faster," he said.

What this means for real life is uncertain. The advantage video game players held over their peers was on the order of 100 milliseconds, Castel noted.

It's possible, though, that a gamer's speedier visual processing could make the difference between, for example, crashing a car and averting an accident, according to Castel.

That doesn't mean, however, that people should take up video games to improve their driving records. That 100-millisecond advantage could take a lot of playing time, Castel said; gamers in his study played 6 days a week, on average, for about 2 hours each day.

Video games have been much criticized for their violent content and for contributing to couch-potato lifestyles. This study, Castel noted, doesn't judge video games as "good" or "bad." It just suggests they feed a very particular expertise.

The main research interest, according to Castel, is in whether video games, through effects on visual processing, attention and movement, can be useful in rehabilitating the brain -- after a stroke, for instance, or in cases of age-related memory loss.

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