Researchers studying optimal break activities and brain responses find decreased performance associated with a task involving video games and memory.
In industrialized societies, there tends to be a trend of work being the number one priority and a high level of guilt that is associated with not working during every available opportunity. Terms like ‘hustle culture’ are tossed around without thought to how this could affect one’s health. There is also a tendency to romanticize the idea of being overworked, losing sleep, and the like. Even in academic settings students overwork themselves and taking breaks is seen as a waste of time. However, there is more and more research focused on investigating ‘breaks’, ‘self-care’, ‘rest periods’, etc. and the potential benefits or lack thereof.
In a recent study, researchers at the University of Berlin tested the effect of different types of break activities on brain functioning. Previous research has shown that any potential benefits or hindrances to “challenging ongoing tasks” were related to the specific type of break that was taken. However, the actual changes that occur in the brain, based on break activity, are not well studied. Research has also shown that activities that require increased levels of higher brain control, and that exert tension during the activity, are the ones that are more likely to negatively affect cognitive performance.
The focus of the study, published in PLOS ONE, was to test the effect of three common break activities on the brain. The researchers wanted to test the effect of “resting, listening to music, and video gaming” on higher-level brain function, specifically in a ‘working memory updating task’. They looked at a sample of 24 native German participants who each engaged in all three of the measured break activities. The participants came into the lab on three separate occasions and engaged in one of the three activities each time. Each visit consisted of three fMRI sessions which involved a scan of the participants’ brain anatomy, a break of 8 minutes and 30 seconds during which one of the three activities was performed for the entire duration, and then finally a scan during the working memory task. Functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) is a procedure that measures variations in blood flow in the brain as a result of activity in different areas. fMRI is based on the principle that when there is increased activity in a certain region, there will be increased blood flow to the area. During the sessions, the participants’ heart rates were also being measured to analyze with the scans. Immediately after the break activity, participants were asked to rank how relaxed or tense they felt on a visual scale.
Negative association found between gaming and working memory
When looking at the effect on working memory, the researchers noted that they were unable to find a direct effect of breaks on the performance of the working memory task. But, when they included the results from the self-ratings into their analysis, they found a significant effect between self-reports of relaxation and task performance. They saw that the lower task performance that was seen after a gaming break was linked with lower self-reports of relaxation after a gaming break. Similarly, changes in heart rate during a break was also linked with task performance, so the increased heart rate experienced during a gaming break was associated with lower performance on the working memory task after the break. Putting those two findings together showed that increased heart rate during gaming and lower self-reported relaxation after gaming was linked to poorer performance on the working memory task. The fMRI scans also showed that there was a significant reduction in activity in an area of the brain known as the SMA (supplementary motor area) after gaming, compared to after listening to music.
More research necessary
Although it was seen that there was a negative association between video games and memory, it is important to note that these findings are quite new and more research is required to confirm this relationship. Some points that the researchers made were that, they did not consider any additional factors that could have affected the interaction between the variables that were actually being studied, they only used one specific song and one specific game, and the sample of people they tested was quite small. These are all points that future research should aim to adjust or change before conclusive statements on the topic are made. Nonetheless, continued study in this field could greatly benefit people of all ages to determine what the most beneficial break activities are to help future productivity.
Written by Haritha Thevar, BSc
Definition of COGNITIVE. (2019). Retrieved 19 October 2019, from https://www.merriam-webster.com/dictionary/cognitive
Liu, S., Kaufmann, C., Labadie, C., Ströhle, A., Kuschpel, M., & Garbusow, M. et al. (2019). Short-term effects of video gaming on brain response during working memory performance. PLOS ONE, 14(10), e0223666. doi: 10.1371/journal.pone.0223666
Magnetic Resonance, Functional (fMRI) – Brain. (2019). Retrieved 19 October 2019, from https://www.radiologyinfo.org/en/info.cfm?pg=fmribrain