University of Tübingen: Computer games train the sense of numbers

Video gaming isn’t just a pastime – it can improve our brain performance too. The more we play, the better we can assess a number of items at a glance. This is probably based on improved attention processes in the brain, report the Tübingen neuroscientist Joana Stäb and Professor Dr. Uwe Ilg from the Hertie Institute for Clinical Brain Research and the University of Tübingen. Your study has now appeared online in the journal Addiction Biology .

The ability to estimate quantities at a glance is innate. We don’t have to count each apple individually to find that there are three in the shopping cart. The so-called sense of numbers behaves in a very similar way to our other senses: the smaller the difference between two stimuli – for example in terms of quantity or pitch – the worse we can assess it. “We can, however, train our perception. Musicians, for example, perceive very subtle differences in volume, ”explains first author Stäb. “We were interested in whether the sense of numbers can also be trained.”

To find out, the two scientists recruited passionate computer gamers who spent more than four hours a week with their hobby. People who spent significantly less time playing video games served as the control group. During the experiment, both groups of subjects saw two circles with dots on a screen. You had to spontaneously indicate in which circle there were more points. In this way, the researchers were able to determine their perception threshold.

The result: “The ability to estimate quantities at a glance can actually be trained,” reports study director Ilg. “To put it simply: computer gamers can intuitively and without counting up better distinguish whether there are more apples or more oranges in the shopping cart.” During the experiment, the gamers made as many mistakes overall as non-gamers. In the test runs, in which the number of points in the two circles differed only minimally, they were clearly superior. Here they could see the difference much better. The more they played a week, the finer their numerical resolution.

The team believes that computer games have an impact on how our brain directs and controls attention. “We know from further studies that video games also improve other cognitive skills, such as time perception or working memory,” says Ilg. Both brain researchers, however, call for moderate gaming. “Every medal has two sides – excessive computer gaming can result in addiction, this is officially recognized as a disease.”

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