Do you often play video games? The chances are that if they happen to be 3Ds, you already have a good memory. Playing 3D video games can improve eye-hand coordination and reaction time and most importantly, it can also help boost the formation of memories, according to study at the University of California, Irvine (UCI).

Super Mario 3D World - Study shows playing 3d video games can improve formation of memories

To test how playing 3D video games impacts memory formation, researchers recruited non-gamer college students to play video games for at most 30 minutes per day for more than two weeks. The games which the students were made to play were either Angry Birds, which features a passive, 2D environment and Super Mario 3D World, which features an intricate, 3D environment.

Before and after two weeks of the game-playing sessions, the students performed memory tests that engaged the brain’s hippocampus, a primitive part of the brain which is associated with emotions, complex learning and the formation of memories.

The researchers gave the participants a series of pictures of everyday objects and showed the images of the same objects, new ones and others that were slightly different from the original ones. When asked to categorize them, students who played the 3D video game outperformed the students who played the 2D game and scored significantly higher on the memory test. The memory performance was increased by about 12 percent, which is the same amount it normally decreases between the ages of 45 to 70 as researchers put it.

Ability to identify slightly altered images requires the hippocampus and this ability declines with age. This is why it is so difficult to learn new names or remember where you put your keys as you get older.

“First, the 3D games have a few things the 2D ones do not,” said Craig Stark of UCI’s Center for the Neurobiology of Learning & Memory. “They’ve got a lot more spatial information in there to explore. Second, they’re much more complex, with a lot more information to learn. Either way, we know this kind of learning and memory not only stimulates but requires the hippocampus.”

Previous studies on rodent by Stark’s colleagues Dane Clemenson showed that exploring the environment resulted in the growth of new neurons in rodents. These new neurons became firmly established with the hippocampus’ memory circuit, thereby increasing neuronal signaling networks.

Stark also found that the 3D game the humans played and the environment the rodents explored shared something in common – something lacking in the 2D game. However, it is still not known what makes 3D games more stimulating to hippocampus. The researchers are still unclear whether it is the overall amount of information and complexity in the 3D game or the spatial relationships and exploration.

Researchers noted that although video games are not created with specific cognitive processes in mind, playing them solely rely on many cognitive processes, including visual, spatial, emotional, motivational, attentional, critical thinking, problem-solving and working memory.

“It’s quite possible that by explicitly avoiding a narrow focus on a single … cognitive domain and by more closely paralleling natural experience, immersive video games may be better suited to provide enriching experiences that translate into functional gains,” said Stark.

Stark and his colleagues are planning to see if they can reverse the hippocampal-dependent cognitive deficits present in older populations, by enriching the environment – either through 3D video games or real-world exploration experiences.

“Can we use this video game approach to help improve hippocampus functioning?” asked Stark. “It’s often suggested that an active, engaged lifestyle can be a real factor in stemming cognitive aging. While we can’t all travel the world on vacation, we can do many other things to keep us cognitively engaged and active. Video games may be a nice, viable route.”

This is indeed a great news for avid 3d gamers and of course for the general population. Researchers hope, with their findings, they could one day reverse the decline in cognitive capacity as people get older or help people suffering from dementia. The findings are published in the Journal of Neuroscience.

Hat Tip: UC Irvine, The Journal of Neuroscience – Virtual Environmental Enrichment through Video Games Improves Hippocampal-Associated Memory