If anyone ever gives you grief about your lifelong Pokemon obsession, tell them that they’ve got people like you to thank for some new information about how our brains develop and learn to organize different visual stimuli. According to a new study, people who played the Pokemon games when they were kids have a “Pokemon region” in their brains — an area of the brain that responds uniquely to pictures of Pokemon in a way that it doesn’t for people who didn’t grow up playing the games.
The study, which comes from researchers working out of Stanford and was published recently in the journal Nature Human Behavior, isn’t really about Pokemon, of course; it’s about how our early childhood visual experience might help determine the way our brains organize visual information as adults. The Pokemon are just an example of a unique visual stimulus. But not only is the method of research particularly ingenious, it also tells us valuable new information about how our brains develop.
Per the Verge, the way questions about how developing brains learn to process new visual stimuli would typically be studied is by working with a group of kids with still-developing brains. But since the methods used would involve long sessions with a lot of repetition — you’d have to bring in the kids, show them the same images under the same conditions repeatedly in order to teach them the stimulus, then take a look at which regions in their brains react — it can be… uh, somewhat questionable. As study co-author Jesse Gomez explained to the Verge, “It seems a little bit unethical to have a kid come in and trap them for eight hours a day and have them learn a new visual stimulus.”
But as it turns out, Gomez and the other researchers didn’t need to rely on kids at all. They realized they had a participant pool ready-made, just waiting to be tapped: Adults who played the early Pokemon games on the Nintendo Game Boy when they were kids in the mid-‘90s.
As the paper notes, first, the Pokemon games require “individuating the animal-like creatures of Pokémon” in order for players to be successful (that is, players need to learn a great deal about all the Pokemon, including what they look like); and second, gameplay conditions back in the ‘90s would have been pretty consistent for everyone who was into Pokemon: Per the study, “Children held the device at a similar, arm’s length, viewing distance, repeatedly for hours a day, over the period of years.” The size at which the Pokemon were displayed, their “strong linear features,” and the fact that kids would never have seen the pixelated video game versions of the creatures in the real world also made them a unique kind of visual stimulus perfect for examining the questions in which the researchers were interested.
So that’s what they did: They gathered a group of 11 adults who had played Pokemon regularly for some time as children, beginning between ages of five and eight, and then picked up the game again as adults. As a control group, they also gathered a group of 11 similarly-aged adults who hadn’t played Pokemon during their childhood. Then they performed fMRIs on the participants while showing them images covering eight categories — faces, animals, cartoons, bodies, words, cars, corridors, and the 150 original Pokemon — and took a look at what kind of reaction each participant’s ventral temporal cortex (VTC) gave.
The researchers hypothesized that one of four outcomes would occur: A consistent pattern of response to the Pokemon wouldn’t be present in either batch of participants, but also wouldn’t correlate with any other stimulus categories (the null hypothesis); there would be a positive correlation between Pokemon and other “animate” categories, like faces, bodies, and animals (the animate hypothesis); that the participants would respond to the Pokemon images similarly to how they respond to faces, thereby classifying Pokemon as an area of expertise — expertise generally being processed by the brain’s face-selective regions (the expertise hypothesis); or, the Pokemon would elicit a unique response pattern shared by no other category (the distinctiveness hypothesis).
They found that the participants who hadn’t played Pokemon as kids demonstrated the null hypothesis — that is, there was no distinctive pattern in their VTC response. Meanwhile, the participants who did grow up playing Pokemon all had a strong response in two very specific areas of the brain: The lateral fusiform gyrus, which has been linked with a number of neural pathways that relate to recognition, particularly of faces, and the occipitotemporal sulcus, which usually responds to images of animals. This response pattern was consistent across all of the Pokemon-playing participants, too.
The researchers are careful to note that the results shouldn’t be interpreted as a literal “Pokemon functional module” in the occipitotemporal sulcus of Pokemon players; rather, the data shows that “prolonged experience starting in childhood can lead to the emergence of a new representation in the VTC for a novel category with a surprisingly consistent functional topography across individuals.” The bottom line is that there’s some pretty strong support here for the idea that your visual experience in early childhood determines at least in part how your brain is organized as an adult.
The size of the Pokemon tells us something new, too. As Gomez explains in a video about the study published on the Stanford YouTube channel, Pokemon are tiny and therefore make it into your brain from the center of your retina, rather than from the periphery. And it turns out that the “Pokemon region,” as it were, “emerges in a part of your brain that responds to information from the center of your retina” — a finding which Gomez says suggests that “the very way you look at a visual stimulus… determines why your brain is organized the way it is.” This, in turn, has implications for dyslexia, face blindness, and other visual deficits — says Gomez, they “might result simply from the way you look at stimuli.”
You can read the whole study here. Now if you’ll excuse me, I have to go see a person about a Bulbasaur…
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