Neurons are notoriously picky. A few will fire like crazy for Jennifer Aniston, but not for Halle Berry; some pay homage to Kobe Bryant, while turning a cold shoulder to Bill Clinton.
Others still, it turns out, might prefer to party with Pokémon.
According to a new study, people who spent their childhoods capturing, training, and battling Pokémon on a Game Boy share a region in their brains devoted solely to recognizing these nostalgic pocket monsters. The findings, published yesterday in the journal Nature Human Behavior, could help explain how the brain tunes into visual cues—and the ways in which information gets encoded during our early years.
Our brains are constantly being bombarded with information. To keep things straight, certain clusters of neurons will only send signals in the presence of certain triggers, like specific colors, words, objects, or faces. Not everyone reacts to the same things, but for those with common interests, these brain regions tend to be consistent across people, regardless of age, sex, or race and ethnicity. It’s not clear exactly how these pathways are set, but many seem to have their origins in childhood, when the brain is still particularly sensitive to new information.
To test this idea, a team of researchers led by Jesse Gomez, a neuroscientist at Stanford University, turned to a familiar cultural juggernaut: the popular video game Pokémon, which illuminated many a Nintendo Game Boy in the 1990s. Through consistent gameplay, children worldwide had been exposed to the same set of images over and over, some for many years in a row. It was, in a sense, the perfect natural experiment.
“What was unique about Pokémon is that there are hundreds of characters, and you have to know everything about them in order to play the game successfully. The game rewards you for individuating hundreds of these little, similar‑looking characters,” Gomez said in a statement. “I figured, ‘If you don’t get a region for that, then it’s never going to happen.’’’
Gomez and his colleagues used functional magnetic resonance imaging, a technique that track blood flow, to scan the brains of 11 “experienced” and 11 “novice” Pokémon players as they gazed upon images of all 150 original Pokémon. To qualify as a Pokéveteran, the participants had to have begun playing the Nintendo game between the ages of five and eight, and played some into adulthood—criteria that Gomez himself met.
It soon became clear that Gomez’s hunch had paid off. While a specific region in the brains of experienced players consistently lit up in response to Poképics, but not to other cartoons or images, the same wasn’t true for the novice noggins. The brain region was also consistent across individuals, in a teeny, pea-sized fold located in just behind the ears, that takes in images seen with our central, rather than peripheral, vision.
That makes sense, given that most players of the Nintendo game spent their days with their eyes fixed on a tiny screen positioned roughly a foot from their face. In this way, the game provided a “unique, yet consistent, visual experience to children,” study author Kalanit Grill-Spector, a psychologist at Stanford University, told Jennifer Ouellette at Ars Technica.
This same Pokécentric brain region might also play some role in processing images of animals, which makes sense for animated characters modeled on wildlife. In a way, this hints at just how malleable and versatile the brain really is, Grill-Spector said in a statement.
The results also shouldn’t necessarily spark concern about the lasting effects of playing video games in childhood, Grill-Spector said. “The visual cortex is made up of hundreds of millions of neurons...we have the capacity to encode many, many patterns.”