Does the brain have a Pokémon area?

A scientific study on Pokémon? You're not the only one to be skeptical of the idea. Project initiator Jesse Gomez also had trouble convincing his colleagues. According to the neuroanatomist, there may be an area of the brain specifically designed to recognize hundreds of Pokémon characters. See how this unusual research can teach us more about the way our visual cortex works.

Pokémon video games have known unwavering success since the late 90s, and they’re still very popular today. The study’s lead author, Jesse Gomez, is himself a big fan: “I played it nonstop starting around age 6 or 7. I kept playing throughout my childhood. What was unique about Pokémon is that there are hundreds of characters, and you have to know everything about them in order to play the game successfully. The game rewards you for individuating hundreds of these little, similar?looking characters.” The scientist hypothesized that intense exposure to the game during early childhood could lead to a preferential activation of these characters in the brain in adulthood. In other words, he wanted to see if there was a brain area for Pokémon…

While the hypothesis may at first seem far-fetched, the researchers realized that it could be a good way to better understand the functional organization of the human visual cortex. Primate studies have already found that the visual cortex (the part of the brain that processes what we see) can develop regions dedicated to a new category of objects, provided that the primates are exposed to the objects early on. Jesse Gomez and his colleagues at Stanford University wanted to see if these findings could also be established in humans.

They used functional magnetic resonance imaging to visualize the brain activity of a single group of adults who had played Pokémon extensively as children. Pokémon characters are particularly interesting because they look very different from objects we typically encounter in our daily experience. The 11 adults (including study co-authors J. Gomez and M. Barnett) were placed in an fMRI scanner where they were able to see hundreds of Pokémon characters (from Game Boy).

It's important to note that the participants all held the same small screen at about the same viewing distance. This allowed the researchers to test the eccentricity bias. This visual theory posits that the connections in our visual cortex aren't influenced by the size or shape of the object, but by two factors: the amount of the visual field occupied by the objects and the parts of our vision (central or peripheral) used to view them. When playing Pokémon on a Game Boy, the characters occupy a very small part of our central visual field. The eccentricity bias theory predicts that the characters' location in the child's central vision (and not their shape, size, or animal characteristics) that determines where they will be located in the developing brain; in this case, the lateral visual cortex.

The results indicate that the brains of experimental group participants reacted more to Pokémon images when compared to a control group that had never played the video game as children. In experts on Pikachu and other Bulbasaurs, the “Pokémon center” is located in the occipitotemporal sulcus, a cerebral fold with millions of neurons, located just behind our ears. According to the researchers, this structure usually responds to images of animals (which may look like Pokémon characters).

While the study needs to be carried out on a larger cohort, according to the authors, the results suggest: “early childhood visual experience shapes the functional architecture of high-level visual cortex, resulting in a unique representation whose spatial topography is predictable.”

And for parents that worry about the long-lasting impact of video games on the brain, study co-author K. Grill-Spector says jokingly that the 11 Pokémon experts that participated in the experiment have their PhDs.
Source: Jesse Gomez, Michael Barnett & Kalanit Grill-Spector, Extensive childhood experience with Pokémon suggests eccentricity drives organization of visual cortex, in Nature Human Behaviour, May 2019 // Standford University website, Stanford researchers identify brain region activated by Pokémon characters


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