The Future of Brain Development

Dear Reader,

Did you play video games as a child? They weren’t around until I was in college. But one thing for sure – kids all over the country are spending a lot of time playing these things now.

That’s a big change.

And with the arrival of ever better technologies, these games are increasingly vivid, realistic – and addicting. What’s is this change doing to our kids?

I’ve wondered for years whether these games influence brain development. I think it might make kids brains work faster, able to process more visual information. And my 9 year-old son seems to be able to multitask in ways I can’t.

But I also wonder about a dark side to brain development induced by the shocking brutality of some of these games. Now for the first time, I’ve found new evidence that violent video games alter brain functioning.

Researchers at Indiana University, Indianapolis, used Magnetic Resonance Imaging, (MRI) to map out which parts of the brain are stimulated when kids play different types of video games.

One group played a violent game called “Medal of Honor,” while another group played an equally exciting, but non-violent game called “Need for Speed.”

After half an hour, doctors collected the MRI data. The teens playing the non-violent game showed activity in the frontal area of the brain. This is the area associated with concentration, inhibition and self-control.

The teens playing the violent video game showed no activity in their frontal area. Instead, they activated the amygdala. This is the “reptilian” brain. It’s associated with emotional arousal – especially anger.

This study is sobering for a number of reasons… The reptilian, or limbic brain, is the least cerebral and most animal-like part of your brain. It’s where your most basic instincts reside. Instincts like feeding, survival and procreation.

This works well in times of crisis. If you’re starving, your reptilian brain will drive you to find food. If someone is chasing you and your life is in danger, this part of your brain will put you into “fight or flight” mode. In other words, you’ll become violent or you’ll run for your life.

But this area of your brain has no capacity for logic, reason or objective decision making. It has no way to express tolerance, understanding or love. Now consider that millions of teenagers are over stimulating this portion of their brain – for hours every day.

Why is this cause for concern?

Because other research has shown that both repetitive actions and repetitive thoughts hardwire your brain, reinforce whatever you’re practicing and make it more likely you’ll repeat that activity in the future.

What do I mean by “hardwire”. In your brain, you have something called dendrites. These are connections between brain cells. Repeated activities stimulate dendrites and create neural pathways between different parts of your brain. The more you practice a certain activity, the stronger that neural pathway becomes. These structural changes are the physical mechanisms of learning.

And your brain, like the rest of your body follows the rule of “use it or lose it.” Neural pathways that are not being used eventually get “pruned.”

This study and what we know about conditioning and learning is not proof but it is reason to suspect that children who spend a lot of time firing up their reptilian brain may be more prone to violence – and may be less likely to show self-control.

An extreme example of this occurred when authorities discovered a teenage girl who had been locked up in her bedroom her entire life. Her parents never spoke to her, never touched her – never even acknowledged her. They kept her alive by sliding trays of food under her door.

When they arrested the parents and rescued the girl, she was twelve. She was unable to communicate with words, as she had never spoke or been spoken to. But when psychologists tried to teach her speech, she couldn’t learn it. After running brain scans, they discovered that the area of her brain that rules speech had atrophied. Due to lack of use, the neural pathways had collapsed – in this case, irreversibly.

I’m not suggesting that all kids who play violent video games will turn violent and lose their ability to be rational. But the nature of the human brain is clear: Practiced behavior becomes dominant. Functions that are ignored get cut off – sometimes forever.

I’ve never bought my son video games. Yet they are so popular among his friends, he is still exposed. I suspect your children or grandkids are too. As much as you can, I think there is reason to keep the violent ones away from kids.

I have one other practical piece of advice: If you have a child or grandchild that’s having a hard time controlling aggression. You might consider a nutritional supplement.

Studies show that omega-3s have the power to reduce aggression and violence. For instance, British researchers gave violent prisoners a fish oil supplement along with their regular daily meals. In a matter of days, the prison guards started to notice a change among the prisoners taking fish oil. When the results were released, violent offenses were down 37 percent and overall offences were down 26 percent in the group taking the supplement.

Your brain is 60 percent fats. For your brain to function properly, omega-3s are essential. Children today suffer from a dramatic omega-3 deficiency. The violent video games might just be making a nutritional deficiency worse.

I give my son a daily teaspoon of cod liver oil for a natural source of omega-3 fats. They make it nowadays without the bad taste of the kind grandmother used.

To Your Good Health,

Al Sears, MD