Mum was right: heavy exposure to pocket monsters fundamentally rewires your brain. But researchers from Stanford say it’s an exciting opportunity to study how we learn to see.
There’s an old folk myth that when James Cook and the Endeavour sailed up the coast of Australia, “discovering” that great desert continent, indigenous fishermen spotted on the shore were completely oblivious to their presence. They were, quite literally, unable to grasp what they were seeing – so their brain discarded it.
Like everything else in What the Bleep Do We Know!?, that ridiculous ‘documentary’ your acid casualty mate swears by, the story of the invisible boat is probably horseshit. But the fact remains we do have to learn how to see, developing the capacity for our brains to pick out recognisable shapes from the maelstrom of light streaming into our heads through our eyeballs to create a cohesive image.
Scientists believe that everything we learn to recognise fundamentally changes the brain. But as a new study has shown, some objects develop their very own specific region in the cortex, a region which is largely consistent from brain to brain to brain.
But bizarrely, while researchers say there’s no dedicated region for some objects like shoes or cars, the new study shows that in some brains (those heavily exposed to Nintendo products) there’s a region that responds much more to images of Pokémon than anything else. The discovery is a powerful new tool to explore still-unanswered questions of neurology, like why some things have localised brain regions while others don’t, and why those regions are located where they are in the first place.
“The functional organisation of human high-level visual cortex, such as the face- and place-selective regions, is strikingly consistent across individuals,” the researchers from Stanford said. “An unanswered question in neuroscience concerns which dimensions of visual information constrain the development and topography of this shared brain organization.”
Their experiment, conducted at the Stanford University School of Medicine, compared the brains of subjects who had played Pokemon heavily during their childhood, starting from the ages of five to eight with a control group by flashing images of Pokémon alongside other cartoons, animals and objects using an fMRI.
“Although many Pokémon characters resemble animals, and children saw Pokémon animations, they were never encountered in the real world,” the researchers said. “Thus, the animacy and real-world sizes of Pokémon are inferred attributes rather than physical ones. As Pokémon are different from both faces and places along these visual dimensions, we can use them to answer fundamental questions.”
The results showed huge swathes of the cortex – the wrinkly bit on the outside of the brain containing millions and millions of neurons – had its functional properties fundamentally changed by prolonged exposure to Pokémon. It also demonstrated that locations from the Pokémon game elicited “place-selective activations” in experienced participants, meaning the brain recognised the image as a location and not just a picture.
The study has strong implications for our understanding of neuroplasticity, confirming that what we see as children has permanent physical effects on the brain; a common visual experience in childhood leads to a common representation of an object in the brain of adults. On the flipside, if we don’t share common visual experiences through diseases like a cataract or cultural viewing habits, the researchers said atypical responses could persist into adulthood, with serious implications for learning and social disabilities.
Researchers noted more work would need to be done to figure out how much exposure to stimuli would be needed, and at what age, to affect change. But with the total number of Pokémon now in excess of 800, finding anyone who’s seen them all would likely be a feat beyond science and in the realm of the miracle.