A recent study, published in The Journal of Neuroscience and conducted by researchers associated with the the Center for the Neurobiology of Learning and Memory at the University of California, Irvine, suggests that playing 3D video games like Nintendo's Super Mario 3D World could help improve memory. Sometimes, playing video games is actually useful in addition to sometimes being fun.

Specifically, Craig Stark and Dane Clemenson tasked "non-gamer college students" with playing a 2D game (Angry Birds) or a 3D game (Super Mario 3D World) over two weeks. The 2D environment in Angry Birds doesn't really play a part in the gameplay, whereas the 3D environment in Super Mario 3D World is an active piece of the greater puzzle that makes up the game's mechanics.

Before and after the two-week period, the participants were subjected to memory tests. These tests were intended to work the hippocampus, the part of the brain associated with memory. The tests basically consisted of the subjects categorizing everyday objects with which they had already been introduced, new objects and very slightly different objects. This kind of recognition works the hippocampus.

As it turns out, those students that had been playing Super Mario 3D World performed better than those that had been playing Angry Birds. Like, significantly. In total, the 3D-playing students performed 12 percent better than the 2D-playing students. One hypothesis is that exploring the virtual 3D environment stimulates neuron growth in the hippocampus much like exploring the non-virtual environment does, though it's unclear whether it's simply the complexity of a 3D game or the spatial puzzles involved therein actually causing the better performance in tests.

Are video games a good way to stem the effects of aging on the brain? Maybe.

"It's often suggested that an active, engaged lifestyle can be a real factor in stemming cognitive aging," says Craig Stark in a news article on the university's website. "While we can't all travel the world on vacation, we can do many other things to keep us cognitively engaged and active. Video games may be a nice, viable route."

Source: The Journal of Neuroscience via Popular Science

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