The Charizard Cortex's True Lesson

08-05-2019

The human visual cortex is one of the most well-understood parts of the human brain in neuroscience (which isn't to say that we have it all figured out, however). One of the things we know about this blob of brain residing in the back of our heads, for instance, is that certain portions of this lobe follow a so-called 'functional topography'. This means that there are areas in the visual cortex that react specifically to certain categories of visual stimuli, such as cars, houses, or faces! 

Recently, a new study conducted at Stanford (and published in Nature Human Behavior) has shown that one of the key factors playing a role in the emergence of this organisation in our brains is what visual scientists call 'eccentricity'. This type of eccentricity has nothing to do with top hats and monocles (sadly?), but with whether or not the objects that you see are located in the middle or more towards the edges of your field of view. The Stanford research team, led by Jesse Gomez, has thus found that whether or not you see certain objects consistently in the middle of your visual field seems to play a key part in your brain developing a specific functional region for these objects. 

Charmander playing Gameboy by Bex LoweNow, this is a wonderful finding, and a great contribution to the field of vision science. However, what makes this study particularly interesting to me is not so much the finding that the things you see right in front of you really make an impact on your brain. No. It's that the researchers used Pokémon to prove this point. Pokémon! Because of the way Pokémon has been played since its launch back in 1996 (i.e. held in the hands, at an arm's length distance from the eyes and usually centrally in front of one's eyes), the researchers decided to study long-time, intensive Pokémon players. We're talking about people who have been playing Pokemon since they were kids and have continued to do so for many, many years. 

Who were these people?

It turns out these participants were all PhD students at Stanford, just like Gomez himself. 

So for me, although attitudes towards games have thankfully started to improve in recent years, the real take-away from the 'Charizard Cortex' study is that people who have played video games all their lives since early childhood, intensively and with a passion, are certainly not doomed to live shallow, failed, antisocial lives, as some would have us believe. In fact, some of these passionate gamers may even end up getting a doctorate degree at Stanford. 

So play on, find like-minded people, and keep doing what you love.


Reference: Gomez, J., Barnett, M., & Grill-Spector, K. (2019). Extensive childhood experience with Pokémon suggests eccentricity drives organization of visual cortex. Nature Human Behaviour, 1. https://doi.org/10.1038/s41562-019-0592-8

Drawing: Bex Lowe

Author

Nastasia Griffioen

Nerd, loves the brain even more than your average zombie, into etymology and reading, wants to explore information sampling in depression using neuro and computational methods.

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