Gaming: what a brain changer


Part 3 of 3 from my 2016 MayoInOZ talk 

Games have always been part of our story, part of our cultural learning. 

Vikings, for example, played all sorts of games, some were even like baseball and rugby we play today! They would have been tough rugby opponents for sure! Alongside the Vikings, ancient Egyptians and Chinese all played games similar to the modern game of chess to teach them strategies of war. The Viking game was called Tafl and was often played with an audience. A dangerous game according to one legend, where a Viking Jarl beat his King, and was, of course, ordered to be killed. Not the best career move, that one.

Games are said to be the oldest form of human social interaction. But games acutually predate humans and our culture. In his 1938 book Homo Ludens, Dutch Historian Johan Huizinga says:

Animals have not waited for man to teach them their playing

So true. 

Animals play games as part of their survival. When we watch that wonderful footage on one of those David Attenborough shows of young lion cubs playing, they are practising for when they have to fight to be leader, or kill for food. That swipe with the paw one cub makes on his brother, when playing, is preparing and teaching him to fight. That swipe is what he needs to assert himself when defending his position as pack leader in the future, or to bring down a zebra for food.

Games support cognitive development. Both in animals and humans. Research shared in the Lego Foundation's report The Future of Play, shows the amount of play we engage in, has a direct correlation to the development of our frontal cortex. Our frontal cortex is the part of our brain where we: monitor our behaviour, and the behaviour of others; work out what is relevant and what isn't; learn from mistakes; and exercise divergent thinking. Interestingly, these are all the things we do when playing a game.

When playing physical game, strategic mind games (cards or board games) or online games you have to work out very quickly what you need to do and what the other person is doing - monitoring behaviour. You also have to work out what to take notice of and what to ignore - what is relevant. When you make a mistake and lose, you refine how you play. And to play a game well you have to exercise your divergent thinking. When playing games we exercise our frontal cortex, making it stronger.

The Lego Foundation report also references the research of Marian Diamond from the 1960s. Marian experimented with rats. She put some in an enriched environment with games to play. The results of the experiment was that rats engaged in play were smarter. They had bigger brains and could undertake more complex tasks. This fundamentally changed childhood development practices. From that time on every nursery needed bright walls, with posters and mobiles hanging from the ceiling. Parents and carers were encouraged to play. 

It is no mistake that we play the most when we are younger. That games and play are intrinsic to our youth. There is a direct correlation between play and our brain development. And our brain is undergoing its biggest changes in the most rapid way in early childhood. This is why, at this time, we need to play. 

When we are born our brain has millions of pathways. To make us work more efficiently the brain prunes itself. It strengthens the pathways we use the most and those we don't use become dormant. New ones can also be created. According to the Lego Foundation, games support the pruning process because:

Repetition of sequences and actions in games...strengthen pathways and creates new ones.

For some time people thought the pathways that were not used, died and could not be resurrected, and that new ones could not form. That the brain was rigid. Norman Doidge MD through his book 'The brain that changed itself', has popularised the theory of brain neuroplasticity. The theory that the brain can rewire itself. A read I highly recommend. He shares inspiring stories about things like a guy, Philip, who had his arm amputated after it became useless following injury in a motorbike accident, but suffered terribly from phantom elbow pain in his amputated arm. A neuroplastician, V.S Ramachadran treated him by having Philip place his right arm in a mirror box, tricking the brain to think it is the left. After time the brain rewired itself curing Philip of his pain by altering his view of his body. Amazing. 

Another story in this fascinating book is of stroke victims unable to speak, play a therapeutic card game that incrementally rewires the brain through constraint-induced therapy to overcome learned nonuse. 

So when our brain is developing, games strengthen pathways and creates new ones. And when our brain is rewiring, games do the same - strengthening pathways and creating new ones. This is why games are so well suited to mental and physical rehabilitation. I am so excited to see what ReachOut are doing with their mental health game Orb and what Mira Rehab are doing in the physiotherapy space. And I can't wait to see what the future brings for this space, particularly when you throw augmented reality into the mix.

For all those believers out there, Arthur C. Clarke's Third Law says it all:

Any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic

Healing has always been magical. 

(This post is the final post sharing an expanded version of my talk at the 2nd International HealthCare and Social Media Summit, Mayo In Oz, in November 2016).