Can video games make you a better air traffic controller? How about a better surgeon? And, for the huge demographic bubble of baby boomers, can video games keep you cognitively sharp into old age?

Continuing our focus on brain fitness this week (see also Nap for Success), here’s another surprising research finding: video games make you smarter! And not just any video games like the sedate Tetris… it’s the action-packed shoot-em-ups like Unreal Tournament and Counter Strike that work best. Specifically, visual search skills were dramatically better in hard-core gamers compared to non-gamers:

In the experiment all of the participants in the Bavelier-Green study rest their heads on a chin rest and stare at a square in the center of a computer screen. Randomly a target… flashes at one of twenty four possible locations on the screen. Immediately the screen is flooded for about a second with a clutter of circles, squares, and lines. Finally, the screen goes blank and the participants are asked to remember where the target had originally appeared on the screen. Regular video-game players do this with about 80% accuracy, while nonplayes get ti right only about 30% of the time. [From Think Smart: A Neuroscientist’s Prescription for Improving Your Brain’s Performance by Richard Restak (emphasis added).]

A second experiment showed that even non-gamers could do much better on the test after a mere month of game play. Clearly, if you are hiring air-traffic controllers, it would be good to know if they are serious gamers. And it’s not just that occupation…

Doctor, What’s Your High Score on Metal Gear?

Surgeons who play video games more than three hours per week commit 37 percent fewer errors in the operating room, are 27 percent faster at laparoscopic skills… and are 33 percent faster at suturing than surgeons who don’t play video games.

Boomer Bonus

Based on research on aging brains, Restak also suggests that playing action games may be better at preventing cognitive decline than “brain fitness” programs. It’s not that puzzles and brain teasers are ineffective, but rather that video games are infinitely more engaging and far more likely to keep the user playing over weeks or months. (Restak does caution that games featuring excessive and random violence like the Grand Theft Auto series might improve cognitive skills but also might have negative consequences as well.)

So, the news is good: spend some time with your Xbox 360, Playstation 3, or WII… you won’t have to feel guilty, because you’ll be stimulating your brain, improving your cognitive skills, and maybe even staving off the effects of Alzheimers.

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