This Is Your Brain On Pokémon

Back in 1996, Jesse Gomez memorized over 150 Pokémon by sight while playing the Nintendo Gameboy version of the popular anime. Little did he know that Gomez’s geeky point of pride would become the basis for a clever experiment 23 years later, that looks at how the brain processes new types of visual information.

As a neuroscientist at Stanford University researching the neural pathways inside the visual cortex, Gomez took fMRI images of brains of adults (including his own) who had and had not played Pokémon as kids. The images showed a striking contrast between the Pokémon experts and the novices. The brains of those Pokémon aficionados universally lit up in a specific subregion, the occipitotemporal sulcus, or OTS, while the OTS remained relatively inactive in the brains of people unfamiliar with the Pokémon monsters.

Although several studies had previously shown that developing brains dedicate entire regions to process word forms, faces or shapes, Gomez’s study was one of the first to show that other forms of information produced a dedicated zone as well. Additionally, the experiment showed that the pixelated, small-screen animations of the Pokémon combined with the game players intense focus on the characters had a large role in determining where the visual information was processed in the brain.

In the future, Gomez and his lab would like to see if the research could apply to certain therapies to help both Pokémon masters and neophytes alike. By studying these visual information pathways, Gomez hopes it may one day lead to a better understanding, and perhaps treatment, of disorders, such as dyslexia or dysgraphia.


Produced by Luke Groskin
Filmed by Christian Baker and Luke Groskin
Chiptune Pokemon Theme by Daniel Peterschmidt based on original song by John Siegler and John Loeffler © The Pokemon Company
Additional Music by Audio Network

Additional Footage and Stills by
Jesse Gomez, Margaret Livingstone, Shutterstock, Pond5,
“Learning about Human Behavior” Coronet Instructional Films,
“The Human Brain,” Encyclopedia Britanica Films,
“The Human Eye,” Knowledge Builders
“Computing Calculator for Math and Science,” Hewlett-Packard
Brain magic of Kim Cramer (C.C BY 3.0)
Dr. Cormac McGrath and Dr. Jonathan Ashmore

Special Thanks To
Dan Lurie, Psychology Dept., UC Berkeley
Holly Aaron, M.S. & Feather Ives, Molecular Imaging Center, UC Berkeley
Ben Inglis, Ph.D., Henry Wheeler Brain Imaging Center, UC Berkeley
and Kevin S. Weiner, Ph.D., Cognitive Neuroanatomy Lab, UC Berkeley

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

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