Being a Pokémon Master in childhood permanently alters your brain

Hours spent catching 'em all primes the brain to recognize familiar, pixelated Pikachus

Hannah Thomasy

Neuroscience

University of Washington

For many people born in the 80s or 90s, Pokémon was a huge part of childhood. We knew the strengths and weaknesses of each of the 151 original Pokémon. We spent hours trying to evolve our Charmander into a Charmeleon or figuring out how to beat Misty in Cerulean City. 

A person holding a green Game Boy Color in their hand

Remember these?

 Elias Castillo on Unsplash 

Now, scientists have found that people who played Pokémon as children may have had their brains irrevocably altered. According to a new study published in the journal Nature Human Behavior, Pokémon players have a specific brain area in the visual cortex devoted to processing Pokémon images. This so-called "Pokémon region" isn't a brand-new physical location, but rather seems to be a new use for a specific patch of brain tissue. 

Early visual experience is essential for organizing the visual cortex – the area of the brain that we use to process visual information. So for any young mammal, including humans, the brain is shaped by things we’ve seen. (Although the majority of this organization happens during infancy and childhood, changes in the visual cortex can occur to a lesser extent in adolescence and adulthood).

People who spent an extensive amount of time playing Pokémon have had a very particular set of visual experiences – in the original Game Boy game, Pokémon were made of large black pixels, they were all about the same size, and the Game Boy was always held about the same distance from the eyes, meaning that the characters took up about the same amount of room in the field of vision. The new study, led by researchers at Stanford University, shows that this unique visual childhood experience leads to unique brain development.

In the study, researchers recruited 11 people who were very experienced with Pokémon (people who began playing the Game Boy game between five and eight years of age, continued playing the game throughout childhood, and came back to the game as adults), as well as 11 people who had never played the game before. Researchers showed participants eight different categories of images – faces, bodies, cartoons, pseudowords (something that resembles a word but has no meaning), Pokémon, animals, cars, and corridors – while scanning their brains using functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI), an imaging technique that measures blood flow throughout the brain. Since more active neurons are associated with greater blood flow, fMRI can show us what regions of the brain are most active during certain tasks or when viewing certain stimuli.

Researchers were particularly interested in activity in the ventral temporal cortex (VTC), an area of the brain thought to be responsible for visual categorization. Different categories of objects produce responses in different brain regions within the VTC. For example, neurons in the fusiform gyrus (FG) tend to fire when a person is viewing faces and neurons in the collateral sulcus (CoS) are active when looking at place images, such as corridors. 

The Stanford-led team found that in lifelong Pokémon players, a specific area of the VTC (called the occipitotemporal sulcus or OTS) consistently lit up when they viewed Pokémon characters. In contrast, those who hadn't played Pokémon didn’t have the same response.

Everyone has an OTS, but this study shows that experience affects what we use it for. Pokémon players' brains have a part of the OTS dedicated to processing Pokémon visuals; in non-players, this region responded to animals, cartoons, and words. However, this does not mean that Pokémon players lack regions for processing animals, cartoons, or words, and there is no evidence that they are less able to process these stimuli. 

Researchers at Harvard have previously observed a similar phenomenon in monkeys: When young monkeys were trained to recognize three distinct categories of shapes, distinct brain regions emerged that preferred each of the three categories. Interestingly, these brain regions developed in the same anatomical locations in all of the monkeys.

A claw machine with full of toys including a large pikachu from the Pokemon series

 Melvina Mak on Unsplash 

Although an enormous amount of the organization of the visual cortex occurs in infancy, this study adds to evidence that visual experiences that do not begin until middle childhood can still have permanent effects on brain development. 

The authors suggest that these findings have implications for processes like learning to read. Reading skills usually develop around the same time for most children (five to eight years old), and some areas in the VTC are activated by looking at words, indicating that they are important for word recognition. Interestingly, while it may not seem like it, the invention of both Pokémon and the written word occurred relatively recently in our evolutionary history. For most of our time on earth, humans have had no reason to dedicate a brain area to recognizing words, yet in the modern age, reading is a critical skill. Thus, studying how visual experiences shape VTC development during childhood could potentially help us better understand the processes that shape both typical and abnormal reading development.

Comment Peer Commentary

We ask other scientists from our Consortium to respond to articles with commentary from their expert perspective.

David Baranger

Neuroscience

University of Pittsburgh

For those interested [ed note: and don't have access to the Nature link above], the full text of this paper is available here.

I was a big Pokémon fan growing up (though I played pirated ROMs on my family desktop), so I was pretty interested to read this study when it came out. The visual system is a very cool model for understanding how the brain processes information, and how environmental experiences influence brain development. Typically, studying the question of how object categories (e.g. faces, tools, places) come to be  represented in the brain is quite difficult in humans, because we’re all exposed to the same categories (though conditions like face-blindness, or prosopagnosia, are interesting exceptions). I think the idea of looking at the effect of exposure to video game characters is inspired, since that is something that not everyone has been looking  at their whole life.

That being said, I think this study makes some pretty strong claims that aren’t supported by their data.

For instance, is the effect really due to playing Pokémon as a kid? All of their Pokémon players have been playing the game since childhood, so we don’t know from this study if it’s actually an effect of childhood exposure. They could have recruited additional groups of players who (A) only played during childhood, or (B) only started playing as adults. Alternatively, they could have trained the Novice group to recognize Pokémon and then re-examined them. If the effect is due to childhood exposure the difference between groups should remain, but if it’s a familiarity effect it would disappear.

Relatedly, the authors make the claim that the identified region is reasonably selective to Pokémon. This is quite a strong claim - few regions of the brain are selective for any one thing, which is a big reason why it’s so  complicated to try and figure out how the brain works. I noticed in Figure 8a that, while this region responds more to Pokémon in the experienced participants, it responds just as much to both  cartoons and animals in both the novice and experienced players. So, this may just be a part of the brain that responds to ‘living-things-that-aren’t-faces’. Experienced players may have just learned to interpret the old-school pixelated Pokémon graphics as living things (see my earlier comment about this could be tested with training  the novice players).

Let’s say I’m right, or partially right, would this study still be  interesting? Absolutely! These results suggest that it may not matter at all what you see an object do. Pokémon characters barely move (they kind of bounce a little in the original games, though the existence of the cartoons and movies do complicate this), yet they are represented just like animals and cartoons (things that we see move). So, even for something  as “basic” as visual processing (it isn’t that basic), our internal  representations of the world may be just as important as what we actually see.

Sarah Laframboise

Biochemistry

University of Ottawa

I agree alot with the above comment, as I feel there is perhaps a missing link between what is actually caused by the game specifically. Obviously this is going to difficult to test experimentally, however in a case like this researchers must be careful with bold statements that convey exclusivity of a correlation.

On another note, I loved this piece and I think it was very relatable! I immediately was curious to know if this can be used as a basis for current research trying to look at the long term implications of kids who grow up today playing other games, such as Fortnite. I would assume that these games would be associated with similar yet specific effects on the brain. As a whole, I believe we need more correlative data, such as this study, to educate younger generations on the effects of gaming  on the brain.This provides a foundation and says “Yes, gaming does cause changes in the brain!” 

Taylor Clark responds:

I also agree with the above two comments. I thought this story was great! I think it did a wonderful job of explaining a challenging neuroscience topic in a way that was easy to understand for all readers, and I agree, the article provides support for the idea that gaming does  change the brain. I think the broader topic here is something I am familiar with, which is the idea of ‘experience-dependent plasticity’ -  that our experiences can reshape and rewire our brain circuits sometimes  permanently. I do however think that the researchers of the article generalize to too broad of conclusions based off of their data.  For example, was there a minimum threshold of hours that kids needed to play Pokemon in order to induce this change? How about an age limit where playing Pokemon for the same amount of hours did not permanently reshape  neural connections in this region of the brain? If you took older participants and had them play Pokemon for the same length of time, could you induce this change in this region of the brain? If you trained these Pokemon participants later on in life intensively on a new object recognition task, would you be able to overwrite this region’s responsiveness to Pokemon? How much of this Pokemon response generalizes to other objects that are similar? These are all unanswered questions that I would like to understand as a researcher before I accept their claims.