How ‘Super Mario’ Could Lead to a Super Memory

10:37 minutes

UCI professor of neurobiology & behavior Craig Stark, here holding a 3-D-printed model of his own hippocampus, says that "video games may be a nice, viable route" to maintaining cognitive health. Photo by Steve Zylius / UCI
UCI professor of neurobiology & behavior Craig Stark, here holding a 3-D-printed model of his own hippocampus, says that “video games may be a nice, viable route” to maintaining cognitive health. Photo by Steve Zylius / UCI

Could playing video games help improve your memory? That’s what researchers at the University of California, Irvine’s Center for the Neurobiology of Learning & Memory set out to discover. Over a two-week period, non-gamer students played either “Super Mario 3D World” or the two-dimensional “Angry Birds.” At the end, only the participants who played the 3D video game saw an improvement in their performance on a memory test. The scientists who led the study, Craig Stark and Dane Clemenson, join Ira to discuss why 3D games might be beneficial for recalling where you left your keys.

Segment Guests

Craig Stark

Craig Stark is a professor in the Department of Neurobiology and Behavior and a fellow at Center for the Neurobiology of Learning and Memory at the University of California, Irvine, in Irvine, California.

Dane Clemenson

Dane Clemenson is a postdoctoral scholar at the Stark Memory Research Lab in the Department of Department of Neurobiology and Behavior at the University of California, Irvine, in Irvine, California.

Segment Transcript

IRA FLATOW: This is Science Friday. I’m Ira Flatow. Picture a world suspended high above the ground, a patch of bright green grass surrounded by an iridescent blue sky populated with puffy white clouds. Or a pasture where hills role like conveyor belts, pink and purple flowers dot the ground, and fish dart back and forth in sparkling ponds. These are the worlds within the video game, Super Mario 3D World, and according to the latest research, exploring these colorful and fantastical 3D settings could improve your memory. And it’s not just any video games that help, they must be 3D. Why? Hoping our next guest will explain. Craig Stark is a professor in the Department of Neurobiology and Behavior and Fellow in the Center for the Neurobiology of Learning and Memory at the University of California in Irvine. Dane Clemenson is a Postdoctoral Scholar in the Stark Memory Research Lab in the Department of Neurobiology and Behavior at the University of California in Irvine. And they join us from KUCI in Irvine. Welcome to Science Friday.

CRAIG STARK: Thank you for having us on.


IRA FLATOW: Craig, where did the idea to use video games to improve memory come from? It’s something that we’ve talked about a while. What was the genesis of your idea?

CRAIG STARK: It really started in some studies in the rodent. And we know in rats and mice if you give them a large world to explore, something to run around and learn, and explore in, we know that it does all sorts of great things for their brain. And the phenomenon is called environmental enrichment. We know it does great things for their memory, overall plasticity in the brain, and we wanted to see, could we actually do something like that in us, in people. And then the big question is, how do we do something like that in us, in college undergraduates, or in adult volunteers here. I had a couple of ideas of things like looking at people about to do a semester abroad, and turns out that’s a tough thing to actually run here but Dane had the really, really good idea that we could use 3D video games for this. Because people voluntarily go and spend hours and hours exploring these massive worlds. Going along, learning all sorts of things about them, and they’re beautifully engineered, I mean today’s games are absolutely incredible. And maybe we could use this as some sort of big world that people could go around and explore and see if that’s an analog of environmental enrichment from the rats.

IRA FLATOW: So, Dane how did you settle on Angry Birds and Super Mario 3D World?

DANE CLEMENSON: The great thing about both these games is that they are incredibly easy to learn. It just takes a simple joystick and a jump button for Super Mario and for Angry Birds, the same thing. And so, we know that Angry Birds is something that has been downloaded billions of times on mobile apps, so people are engaged by it, they want to play this type of game. And Super Mario as well. Super Mario has been around for decades and it’s kind of played by adults and kids alike.

IRA FLATOW: So, do you guys play video games?

DANE CLEMENSON: We do you play video games. I’ve always played video games and kind of more recently Craig I have both been playing together.

CRAIG STARK: In fact last night we were online playing together. So, yes, we have. I’ve certainly also taken up the habit as well.

IRA FLATOW: Well, why would a 3D game be more beneficial to your memory then a 2D game, Craig?

CRAIG STARK: And that’s of course the big question right now. And in truth we don’t know the answer just yet, but we do have a couple of ideas. One is that there’s just a lot more spatial processing, and spatial learning, and memory that goes on with a three dimensional game, it’s a lot richer sort of environment. In a two dimensional game you have the screen in front of you, and maybe it pans up and down, and this sort of thing, but that’s really all there is to it. As soon as you’re inside the game though you can start to look around and see all sorts of these spatial relations. Now doesn’t need to be the spatial relations, it could just be there’s a lot more stuff that you’re learning inside it, their richer kinds of games. You know it could also be the feeling of being immersed in it and that it seems a bit more real or something like this. And this is the kind of thing that actually we’re trying to get at now in a nice new series of studies that the Dana Foundation has very graciously founded for us.

IRA FLATOW: Dane did you have to set up, turn your lab into like a big living room with couches and TV sets, things that’s a sort of mimic what the gaming experience is like?

DANE CLEMENSON: Kind of. You know, we have a couple behavioral testing rooms that we’ve been using and we literally just kind of transported in a couple Wii’s and a couple TVs. And right– So all the participants actually came into our lab and they came into play for 30 minutes a day. In the study they played for two weeks but, yeah, so we did have to convert one of the rooms into a little game area, I guess.

IRA FLATOW: Yeah, life’s rough.

DANE CLEMENSON: I know, it’s so hard.


IRA FLATOW: Craig, tell us about the improvements. You saw real improvements in people’s memories, right?

CRAIG STARK: Yeah, we saw market improvements in it. My lab has been looking at what the hippocampus does in the service of memory for a long time now. And things like how does it change with age, and how does a change in the hippocampus deal relate to changes with memory in aging, and so we have behavioral tasks that are very, very sensitive to hippocampal function. And in one of the tasks we show people a series of pictures of objects and later on we can show them those same objects, ones they haven’t seen, or ones that are very similar but not exactly the same thing. And we know from all of this other research that your ability to say to those similar lower items, your ability to say, you know, that’s similar but it’s not exactly the same one, that is critically dependent upon the hippocampus. That sort of level of extra detail, I know I’ve seen a rubber duck, but was it this exact rubber duck. That we know is dependent upon the hippocampus. And so we tested people in the memory, in this memory task, and a number of other tasks before they went through any kind of training. They then as Dane was saying went through two weeks worth of 30 minutes a day worth of just playing video games and we tested them again. And the astounding thing was that, well, if we didn’t do anything, if you didn’t come on in and play any games there was no change in your performance, and if you played two dimensional game, Angry Birds, it didn’t change your performance. But if you came in and you played Super Mario 3D World for those two weeks, it made your memory better. And one of the really neat things about this is, it’s not like a lot of brain training sort of approaches that have you train up on something that we’re then going to test you on. Here the test is just, well, is this the same kind of thing, the exact same object, that I showed you before. And the training, if you want to call it that, is come on into the lab and play Super Mario 3D World. So, it’s not really the same kind of thing and yet we’re seeing that your hippocampus is working better. We’re seeing that you are able to remember these things and to learn these things with this level of accuracy and detail in ways that you couldn’t have before.

IRA FLATOW: Do we have any idea why it takes the 3D version of it to be better than the 2D?

CRAIG STARK: Yeah, what we think, that the 3D version, for lack of a better word may be exercising or stimulating the hippocampus more. We don’t know because we can’t measure a number of these things in people yet, but we know from the rodents that having them go and explore real environments here, having them do that, does things like gets new adult neurons born into the hippocampus. And those new neurons get to be used for learning other new things and sort of your getting more capacity into your hippocampus. And some of this was the work that Dane had actually been doing as a PhD student. And he’s now been taking on, trying to map this into humans, in my lab. And so it may very well be that by stimulating the hippocampus, by giving you something to learn, by challenging you in this way, you’re actually making a better hippocampus.

IRA FLATOW: So is this applicable to all of us? Are there 3D games that we should be playing that might help improve our memories?

CRAIG STARK: Well, that’s the hope. That’s the hope that it does actually improve to, sorry, that it does actually apply to all of us. And that’s why the current direction that we’re taking is to try to see, well, what if we take naive middle aged individuals, what if we take naive older individuals, and give them these games to see if they can actually improve their memory ability. That’s also one of the reasons why we picked the games that we did to actually explore there. Super Mario 3D World my kids were playing when they were six, seven years old and so it’s not a very complex game, doesn’t take mastery of all sorts of gaming skills to be able to pick that up.

IRA FLATOW: Do you do say that if– You talk about your kids playing at an early age. Could you infer that if people start playing 3D video games at a younger age, well it certainly can’t hurt, can it?

CRAIG STARK: I certainly don’t want to be on the record for that. However, the idea is that you’re giving the system something to learn. Your really exercising your brain and you’re exercising your memory in the same way that, well, going for a job would be exercising your muscles an exercise in your body, and this may actually be a good thing.

IRA FLATOW: Would SimCity fall in that category too?

CRAIG STARK: That is an interesting kind of possibility and one of the things we’re looking at is this style of game. So, is it exploring the big 3D world or is it the amount of information? And in something like SimCity, where you have a bird’s eye view of your city but you do have to keep track of where your resources are, and there are a lot of complexities to it, that’s giving you a lot of information you’re continually having to keep track of, learn, and remember. And so, it may have similar kinds of things, we just don’t know. We’re also looking at another game, Hearthstone, which again doesn’t have the big spatial memory component, it’s a card based game but on the computer. And there’s a lot to learn, and a lot they could be exercising and stimulating your hippocampus that would be not spatial. And honestly right now we don’t know which of these dimensions of it actually matters.

IRA FLATOW: Well, I’m hoping all my Legends of Zelda days back in the day have benefited me years later. I want to thank you both for taking time to be with this today. Craig Stark is Professor in the Department of Neurobiology and Behavior and a Fellow in the Center for the Neurobiology of Learning and Memory at the University of California Irvine. Dane Clemenson is a Postdoctoral scholar in the Stark Memory Research Lab in the Department of Neurobiology and Behavior at the University of California Irvine. Have a happy holiday season to both of you.

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