12/20/2019

Exploring Your Brain’s Pokémon Region

6:29 minutes

How does a child’s brain dedicate entire regions for processing faces or words? 

In order to answer this question, Stanford University neuroscientist Jesse Gomez leveraged a novel visual data set: Pokémon! Gomez, a lifelong fan of the popular anime creatures, wondered if his childhood ability to instantaneously identify all 150 Pokémon—combined with the repetitive way they were presented on screen—might have resulted in the formation of dedicated Pokémon region in his brain. 

To test this theory, Jesse took FMRI images of the brains of adults (including himself) who had played the Pokémon game as kids and brain images of those who had no experience with the game. The FMRI images showed a striking contrast between the Pokémon experts, whose brains’ lit up in a specific subregion, and novices, whose brains remained mostly inactive in the same area. The experiment also demonstrated that the small-screen pixelated presentation of the Pokémon played a large role in determining where the visual information ended up in their brains. 

In our newest Macroscope video, Gomez reveals how he came up with this novel experiment and why understanding the pathways of visual information may lead to a better understanding of visual processing disorders, such as dyslexia. Science Friday video producer Luke Groskin joins Ira to relay Gomez’s story and how Pokémon provide the perfect opportunity to teach us about how our vision systems develop.


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Segment Guests

Luke Groskin

Luke Groskin is Science Friday’s video producer. He’s on a mission to make you love spiders and other odd creatures.

Segment Transcript

[MUSIC PLAYING] IRA FLATOW: Do you know that there’s a Pokemon spot in the brain? Yes, those critters from the popular Japanese anime and games can activate a certain region of the visual cortex, and now neuroscientists are using them as a window into how the brain works. Here to tell us more is Science Friday’s video producer Luke Groskin. His Macroscope video this week is all about the Pokemon spot in the brain. Welcome, Luke.

LUKE GROSKIN: Hi, Ira.

IRA FLATOW: Do I have a Pokemon spot in my brain?

LUKE GROSKIN: I’m sorry to inform you that you personally do not have a Pokemon spot in your brain. And I know that probably because–

IRA FLATOW: I’m wounded.

LUKE GROSKIN: I know that because I think it’s pretty unlikely that you played Gameboy back in the 1990s.

IRA FLATOW: No, no.

LUKE GROSKIN: And your knowledge of Pokemon is not up to snuff, to be completely honest.

IRA FLATOW: So you have to have played it early on in life? Is that what you’re saying?

LUKE GROSKIN: Yes. So you have to have played it as a child, and you have to have played it on the Gameboy, on a small screen. And if you did that, your brain was exposed to a very steady and standardized little experiment, I guess as it were. So you saw the little Pokemon on the screen. And you pretty much always held it at the same distance, and the Pokemon always appeared at the same spot on the screen, and your brain started to record each of those Pokemon.

And in order to win the game, you had to memorize all those Pokemon. So as a result, you were motivated to store all of the little nuances of these Pokemon, and your brain became specialized. A part of your brain became specialized at identifying Pokemon.

IRA FLATOW: So there’s a special– we created a little memory spot in the brain.

LUKE GROSKIN: Well, the spot existed in the first place, but the brain is super plastic when you’re growing up. And just like our ability to distinguish between faces or words or numbers, which all have been shown to have a dedicated spot inside your brain, your brain looked at all these little Pokemon and dedicated a spot, a little section of neurons, that activates and becomes energized when you see these Pokemon so that you can easily identify them and get your little dopamine fix by winning the game.

IRA FLATOW: Now you visited with a researcher in your video on his Pokemon knowledge. And first, I wanted to know, how did he know where to look or find this spot in the brain?

LUKE GROSKIN: Well, the researcher is a fellow named Jesse Gomez, and he was at Stanford. He’s going to be at Princeton pretty soon, and he played Pokemon obsessively as a kid on the Gameboy. And he heard about this experiment where they gave little baby rhesus macaques– they showed them Tetris images, and they learned they got a dedicated zone in their brain. Now you can’t do that with kids. And he’s pretty smart, he’s pretty clever. He decided, you know, there was a naturally existing experiment that was conducted the 1990s with Pokemon.

And what he basically did is he ran a test. He put himself first into an fMRI scanner, and he showed himself images of Pokemon. And lo and behold, the very specific spot in his brain lit up. Then he did the same with a bunch of other Pokemon players, and then a bunch of non-Pokemon players. And lo and behold, the non-Pokemon players, their brains were relatively inactive in that same spot, whereas the Pokemon players were super active in that spot. And that conclusively showed that Pokemon had been given a dedicated spot in these players’ brains.

IRA FLATOW: Why Pokemon and not a Bugs Bunny or a Looney Tunes character or something like that?

LUKE GROSKIN: That’s a great question, Ira.

IRA FLATOW: Thank you.

LUKE GROSKIN: So I wondered the same thing. The thing is about Pokemon, specifically on the Gameboy and their representation here, is that Looney Tunes, there’s not that many of them that you need to distinguish. What, there’s maybe 10? And some other cartoons, there might be like five or 10 different characters, and all the different styles between these characters are pretty different. Whereas, with Pokemon, especially on the Gameboy, they’re all pretty universally the same style, same presentation, same distance from your eye, and that has a lot, a big, big effect on why you got the dedicated spot.

Because that sort of standardization, that sort of routine method of exposure– just like seeing faces. We’re all exposed to faces in a very particular way, and they have very kind of minor variations on it. That sort of minor variations makes your brain need that sort of level of specialization. Also, where that image fell on your retina has a huge, huge impact on where that image ends up into your brain.

IRA FLATOW: I’m Ira Flatow. This is Science Friday from WNYC Studios, talking with our video producer Luke Groskin about his new video up on our website about Pokemon and the spot in your brain. Your child was in this video if I noticed correctly.

LUKE GROSKIN: Yeah. He was all over it, and he’s probably the motivation for me probably wondering about this because I see him. He can name up to 500 Pokemon off the top of his head.

IRA FLATOW: 500?

LUKE GROSKIN: Yeah. Well, there’s 800 now. And I see him playing this game, Pokemon GO, and it’s a new version. It’s not like the Gameboy. But you know, I asked the scientist, would that have the same effect on a child? And he said, yeah, probably because the visualization is all pretty standard. You’re holding your cell phone at roughly the same length, so it would make sense that it might create a spot.

IRA FLATOW: Well, one last question for you. If you’re filling up your brain with all these Pokemon images, are you pushing out something else your child might be learning and should be worried about that?

LUKE GROSKIN: So Dr. Gomez believes that you don’t have anything to worry about here. All of the tests that he ran on the people that had played Pokemon, they were all going on to get their PhDs or they already had their PhDs. And there’s no actual scientific evidence that he knows of that shows that there’s any sort of detriment to filling your brain up with Pokemon. The way that he looks at it is this is just an additional function that your brain can actually take on. And so that in and of itself isn’t necessarily harmful. It just shows the power of what our brains are capable of doing.

IRA FLATOW: Terrific. It’s a great video. You can see Luke Groskin’s video on your Pokemon brain up on our website, ScienceFriday.com/Pokemon.

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About Christopher Intagliata

Christopher Intagliata is Science Friday’s senior producer. He once served as a prop in an optical illusion and speaks passable Ira Flatowese.

About Ira Flatow

Ira Flatow is the host and executive producer of Science FridayHis green thumb has revived many an office plant at death’s door.

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