People who spent a significant portion of their childhood playing Pokémon games are found with a special region in their brain dedicated solely to recognizing Pikachu and friends.
The Brain's Ability To Develop New Regions
Don't worry, it's not at all harmful to children or adult brains. This doesn't just apply to Pokémon.
Looking at any visual object for a significant period of time will "re-wire" the brain in the same way. It's well established that the brain is equipped with regions or clusters of neurons that visually recognize specific images, such as Jennifer Aniston and a handful of other famous personalities.
However, scientists puzzle over how this mechanism works.
"It's been an open question in the field why we have brain regions that respond to words and faces but not to, say, cars," said study author Jesse Gomez in a news release from Stanford University. "It's also been a mystery why they appear in the same place in everyone's brain."
The researchers tackled these mysteries in a paper published in the journal Nature Human Behavior, which revealed that adults who played Pokémon as children developed a new region for the characters of the game.
Pokémon As An Ideal Experiment Subject
A recent study on monkeys from the Harvard Medical School observed that regions dedicated to a new category of objects are more likely to develop in the brain's visual cortex if exposure to these objects begin at a young age. In these early years of development, the brain is still very adaptable and responsive to visual experience.
To test if this is true for humans, Gomez drew from his own childhood experience, recalling that he used to play Pokémon Red and Blue when he was about 6 to 7 years old. If it is true that significant exposure during childhood is critical for developing brain regions dedicated to specific objects, then his brain should respond to Pokémon characters more than it responds to other stimuli.
Pokémon characters are especially suited for scientific study, since they look so outlandish and different from what humans see anywhere else. The video game is also primarily played by children during their formative years.
Furthermore, the conditions of playing the Pokémon Red and Blue game is essentially the same for each player, with the exact same exposure to the stationary black and white Pokémon characters and each player holding their device at roughly the same distance from the eyes.
"I figured, 'If you don't get a region for that, then it's never going to happen,''' Gomez said.
For the study, Gomez and the rest of the team tapped 11 experienced Pokémon players, as well as 11 other individuals who had never played the game. All of the participants were shown images of Pokémon and other random faces and objects while undergoing fMRI.
Findings show that the Pokémon players responded more strongly to the pictures of the game characters than the non-players. As the researchers predicted, a new region formed in the brain for recognizing Pokémon characters and it's in the same location in all the players.
Gomez says their findings support a concept known as "eccentricity bias," which means that the way people look at objects with either the central or peripheral vision and how much of the visual field these objects take up determine the location of its dedicated brain region.
"These findings suggest that our brain is capable of developing more specialized brain regions for recognizing objects than we previously thought," Gomez explained. "So we're likely not limited by our brain, but instead by how much we can experience in childhood."