Study: Can Pokémon Players Help Us Better Understand the Brain?

Adults who extensively played Pokémon as children, as early as five-years-old, have developed a new region in their brains which allow them to recognize characters from the game, according to a team of Stanford University researchers who published their findings in Nature Human Behavior.

Previous animal-based studies have indicated that the brain develops special regions of the brain to encapsulate a new category of objects, and that those regions are formed during childhood.

In an attempt to discern these brain areas in humans, the researchers sought to test how an adult brain would respond to certain images and stimuli that were established during childhood, and decided that Pokémon, originally made for Nintendo in 1996, was the ideal game to test on because “what was unique about Pokémon is that there are hundreds of characters, and you have to know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,” said Jesse Gomez, a Stanford University graduate and lead author of this study in an article published in Medical News Today. “It’s been an open question in the field why we have brain regions that respond to words and faces but not to, say, cars,” continued Gomez. “It’s also been a mystery why they appear in the same place in everyone’s brain.”

To conduct this study, researchers recruited participants between the ages of 18 and 44 years old (mean age, 26) and partitioned them into two groups: experienced Pokémon players (n=11, mean age, 24, 3 females), and individuals novice to the game (n=11, mean age, 29, 7 females). The experienced group was selected through self-reporting, and in order to be deemed eligible, they must have: began playing the original Nintendo Pokémon games between five and eight years on the handheld Gameboy device, continued to the original game as well as its subsequent series throughout their childhood, and either continued on playing the game into adulthood or revisited the game at least once into adulthood. For those who want to experience some adrenaline, they can play games such as the ones on

The experienced cohort was tested to verify their familiarity with the game. Conversely, novice participants had never played Pokémon and had little to no interaction with the game. All participants were then shown hundreds of Pokémon characters, and images, and a functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) scan was administered to track their brain activity.

Results Suggest a Specific Response

Results indicated that, unsurprisingly, the experienced Pokémon players showed a higher brain response to imagery than the novices. However, consistent among all participants was a reaction that occurred in a region of the brain (located behind the ears) called the occipitotemporal sulcus. This region generally responds to images of animals – a key finding considering that Pokémon characters are pixilated animal-like characters. “I initially used the Pokémon characters from the Game Boy game in the main study, but later I also used characters from the cartoon in a few subjects,” said Gomez. “Even though the cartoon characters were less pixelated, they still activated the brain region.”

“Overall, our study underscores the utility of developmental research, showing that visual experience beginning in childhood results in functional brain changes that are qualitatively different from plasticity in adulthood,” the authors wrote in a conclusion of their findings.

“Future research to examine the amount of visual experience necessary to induce distinct cortical specialization and determine the extent of the critical window during which such childhood plasticity is possible will further deepen our understanding of the development of the human visual system and behavioral ramifications.”

Source: Nature Human Behavior, Medical News Today