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Civilization Watch
First appeared in print in The Rhinoceros Times, Greensboro, NC
By Orson Scott Card June 26, 2005

Brain Training

My wife gave me an arcade game for Christmas -- a new home version that looks just like the old video arcade unit but contains several dozen games.

Our eleven-year-old has tried out all of them now, and has her favorites. But I zeroed in on Mr. Do and Millipede. In fact, my wife and I play Millipede together quite often, and we have noticeably improved our scores. It feels like such an achievement, but ... it's a videogame! By definition, it's a waste of time!

Or maybe not. Maybe computer games don't rot your brain after all.

So says James Gee of the University of Wisconsin, as quoted in an article in the current Discover (July 2005).

About the only good thing anybody ever said about videogames is that they help develop "eye-hand coordination." And even that was doubtful -- would playing videogames really help you catch a real ball in the real world?

Gee found out what gamers have known all along: that there's a lot more to playing videogames than "mindless killing," and, far from being loners and geeks, gamers are (according to a Harvard Business School study) "consistently more social, more confident, and more comfortable solving problems creatively. They also showed no evidence of reduced attention spans compared with nongamers" (p.42).

Brain Stretching

When you play videogames, you're giving your brain an intense workout, and the skills you're developing are useful across the board.

It's not like riding a bike, where the muscles you develop are useful for riding a bike. When you're playing a videogame, you're stretching your ability to notice things with your peripheral vision (useful for driving cars without killing people), recognize patterns, remember intricate series of events, and to delay instant gratification for greater rewards later.

Most of all, you're practicing learning.

Compare it to homework, where you simply repeat what you've already learned until it's boring. It never gets faster. And if you're making mistakes, you don't get any feedback until the teacher grades your work and hands it back.

With videogames, you get instant response to your mistakes and a chance to correct them right away. And when you've mastered a pattern or figured out a puzzle and moved on, the next puzzle is more challenging and the next pattern is faster or more complex ... or both.

Videogames keep you constantly on the edge of your abilities, stretching, growing.

And even though the player may be physically alone, he is actually moving in space and time, interacting with many "others" at the same time.

According to the article, "Gee contends that the way gamers explore virtual worlds mirrors the way the brain processes multiple, but interconnected, streams of information in the real world" (Steven Johnson, "Your Brain on Video Games," p. 41).

Here's the clincher: In a study conducted at the University of Rochester, cognitive scientists Shawn Green and Daphne Bavelier discovered that the perceptual differences between gamers and nongamers were "far more pronounced than the differences between hearing and deaf individuals." In other words, playing videogames stretches and improves your visual perception more than having to compensate for deafness does!

They wondered if maybe they got these results because people who were naturally more perceptive were more likely to play games. They took a bunch of complete nongamers and had them immerse themselves in the World War II game Medal of Honor and "the evidence was overwhelming: Games were literally making people perceive the world more clearly" (p. 41).

The Downside

Are there negatives to games? Most people have the idea that videogaming is nothing but killing people -- and there are brutally violent videogames. Studies already show an increase in aggression after playing violent games or watching violent television shows and movies.

But most games are not violent. Even if they are war-themed, they're about as violent as playing chess -- which is also a war game. Most games have no violence at all, and some -- especially online multi-player games -- are highly social and require learning the ability to cooperate and compromise.

Games are also addictive. It's not just that they stimulate the pleasure centers in the brain -- they also imprint patterns that continue after the game is over. Many people have reported persistent semi-hallucinations of Tetris shapes or Pac-Man patterns superimposing themselves on the real world hours after they have stopped playing.

And I can personally attest to the way that game-playing can suck hours out of your life -- hours that might be spent doing things that matter more to you. As with almost everything, moderation is a good idea. (And for those wondering about the "almost," I suggest that marital fidelity, reliable childcare, and obedience to laws are examples of areas where moderation isn't such a good idea after all.)

Part of what makes us human is that we take pleasure in learning and overcoming challenges. So if you have a game that consists of learning and overcoming challenges, it's going to make you feel good. That's a good thing.

What should make us sad are the people who have stopped feeling the pleasures of learning and problem-solving.

The Brain Is Part of the Body

The point of this is not to get you all to rush out and buy videogames. You've already sorted yourselves into gamers and nongamers, and I don't own stock in any game company.

What we forget is that the brain is an organ in our bodies, a physical object. It can get sick. It can be damaged and broken. It can be drugged. It can be artificially stimulated.

And it can be trained.

We have no problem with the idea of training athletes. Natural talents aren't enough -- the fast kid needs to run and train and learn to use his legs and feet and body position correctly in order to maximize his speed and endurance. He has to eat right and get enough sleep.

But in training our brains, we often treat it, not as an organ in the body, but as a bucket into which information is dumped. We understand about improving the data stored in the brain and even developing certain skills. What we don't think about is training the brain itself in order to change its internal shape, the way muscles change their shape when they're properly developed.

Behavioral Optometry

A friend of mine recently became an optometrist. He had the standard course of study, but what excited him most was the fairly new field of behavioral optometry. He joined an L.A. practice that specializes in this field.

The idea is that they help patients avoid surgery, with all its risk, by helping them correct vision problems through exercise. A crude version of this is when "lazy eye" is corrected by covering the strong eye and forcing the lazy one to do all the work until it's strong enough to pull its weight with both eyes involved.

But this is metaphorical language. Ultimately, what's being trained is the brain. The muscles around the eye that control its movement and shape and focus will respond to what the brain demands of them.

So what my friend works with is really the brain, training it to use the eyes more effectively. Not every surgery can be avoided, but when the problem is one that can be cured with brain-training, it's by far the better way.

Unfortunately, behavioral optometry, despite its dramatic effectiveness, is still "experimental" and not covered by insurance. So, ironically, people dependent on their insurance have to be cut or lasered, while people of more copious means can get many eye problems cured without surgery.

Use It or Lose It

My grandmother suffered from Alzheimer's. But for many years, she staved off the worst effects of this devastating condition by teaching. Her daughter, my Aunt Donna, was mentally retarded, and my grandmother would go to the institution where Donna was cared for and teach reading and writing to these retarded adults.

The whole exercise was futile, in one sense: It's not as if any of these mentally limited adults suddenly had a Helen Keller moment and began reading incessantly.

But they loved the sheer struggle of learning and were happy with every tiny breakthrough. And my grandmother, too, by keeping involved in a demanding mental activity, kept her own brain growing and developing -- which compensated for some of the debilitation of Alzheimer's.

Only when that facility closed down and she could no longer teach did her mind start fading in the normal Alzheimer's pattern.

That's not evidence, of course, it's anecdote. But we all know it's true. Doing something that demands intense mental activity makes us more mentally alert in other areas.


Of course we've all heard stories about absent-minded professors -- brilliant people who can't match their socks or who go to work in their pajamas. But this has nothing to do with a lack of mental ability or even with forgetfulness. It has to do with the ability to utterly focus on a mental problem, letting mechanical tasks take care of themselves.

Like when you drive a car while conversing intensely with somebody. You don't hit pedestrians or other cars or parts of the landscape, which is good, but you also have no memory of actually driving the miles. Your conscious mind is able to focus on the most important task, while the "mechanical" mind does the scutwork and only alerts the forebrain when there's an emergency.

Matching your socks isn't an emergency.

Coping with ADHD without Drugs

In the July 2005 Scientific American, Gunjan Sinha reports on "Training the Brain" (pp. 22-23). Some scientists working with kids with Attention-Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD) hypothesized that the problem for some kids might be an insufficient "working memory" area in the brain -- some ADHD kids simply didn't have the capacity to hold an entire problem in their minds long enough to solve it.

Drug therapy can get kids to stop "misbehaving" so much -- but all that's being solved is the problems of the people around the ADHD kid, not the kid's own problem. The drugs function as a sort of invisible straitjacket. These doctors -- Rosemary Tannock in Toronto, Canada, for instance, and Susan Gathercole in Durham, England -- have started training these kids with exercises that actually increase their working memory.

They reshape the functional architecture of the brain through challenging repetitions, just as athletes reshape their musculature, ligaments, and even bones through rigorous exercise.

The results were rather thrilling. Torkel Klingberg in Stockholm found that after five weeks of training, twelve out of twenty ADHD kids no longer met the clinical criteria. In other words, while they might not be "cured," they could no longer be diagnosed as ADHD.

The emphasis of the training is on "visual-spatial memory, which is where we find the strongest link to inattention and ADHD," says Rosemary Tannock. "But they have to go further. You want to show that training improves ability on a range of tasks, not just holding information."

With ADHD, training therapy is still experimental, and remember that of those twenty kids, eight of them were not brought out of a diagnosable ADHD condition.

But with more study, better regimens of mental exercise might be developed.

And my point is simply this: Brains can be improved, but only if you not only use them, but use them hard and fast and in useful ways.

Is Your Brain in Traction?

I think a lot of us get into a rut in our lives, doing pretty much the same thing all the time. It's easy to do. We have responsibilities, regularly defined tasks: Do your job, drive your car, fix a meal, wash clothes, mow your lawn. We even vacation in mentally non-taxing ways, because, after all, we've earned a rest.

And those parts of our brain that are involved in these tasks certainly get a workout ... or do they? How much of the activity of our lives is actually conducted by the unconscious, mechanical part of our brains? How much of our day do we spend actually awake?

Along with setting aside a part of our day for physical exercise, to keep our bodies healthy, why not do the same favor for our brains?

Why not expose our brains to new ideas -- meaning ideas we don't already agree with, facts that we don't already know -- in order to get practice learning?

Why not immerse ourselves in challenging fiction that forces us to get to know people we've never met and dwell in societies we've never lived in?

Why not join a book club or write a journal or solve a crossword or take a class or study on your own?

Why not play games -- not just videogames, but social games, that force us to be inventive and solve problems?

Why not explore the world around you -- learn the names of all the trees in your neighborhood, for instance?

And yeah, sure, why not? Play some videogames.

It's not only good for you to stretch your brain, it's also fun.

And if you don't, it's as if your brain were lying in a hospital bed, an invalid with its arms and legs in casts, being held in traction. Only the longer you keep your brain in that condition, the weaker it gets.

The good news is that you are never so young or so old that you can't benefit from a good brain-stretch.

Copyright © 2005 by Orson Scott Card.

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