Stanford Psychologists Find A Brain Region For Pokémon Characters, New Study Suggests


Pokémon is definitely one of those childhood nostalgia that you just can’t get over. All that being said, what if you got to know that you have a special place in your brain that has your favourite characters from this cartoon saved securely around? Stanford psychologists have found that the same could very well be true.

A new study (R) conducted by the psychologists from the Stanford University has found that the adults who indulged in Pokémon video games extensively during their childhood days specifically have a brain region that preferentially responds to some of the images of Pikachu and the other characters in the series.

If your childhood has been spent playing and training some of the popular Pokémon characters, chances are that there could be a wrinkle in your brain which is quite fond of some of the important characters in the cartoon series. The psychologists have actually identified some preferential activation to some of the Pokémon characters in the people who have extensive spent their childhood engrossed in the games.

The findings of the study were published in the journal Nature Human Behaviour that helps shed light on two of the most important mysteries related to our visual system.

Jesse Gomez, who is the first author of the study and also a former Stanford graduate student, stated saying that the open question of why we have brain regions that respond well to faces and words but not to something as materialistic as cars. It has been a fact of constant mystery as to why the same appears in the same place in everyone’s brain.

The answer to this came partially from one of the recently conducted study by the researchers from the Harvard Medical School. The researchers found that in order to develop better folds in the visual cortex dedicated to a new category of objects, it is important for the brain to be exposed to the same at an early age in life when the brain is still malleable and sensitive to the visual experiences.

In order to dig deeper, Gomez brought back and reasoned around one of the activities that he had immense exposure to during his childhood and that was playing Pokémon at a stretch. He further reasoned that if early childhood exposure is something that is responsible for developing dedicated brain regions, then his brain as well as the brains of others should be responsive to the Pokémon characters.

Further emphasizing on this, Gomez shared saying that the unique thing about Pokemon is the fact that it has hundreds of characters in it and it is important for you to be aware of each one of these characters to be able to play the game successfully. He thought that if this specific situation doesn’t get a region in the brain dedicated to itself, then nothing else would.

Eccentricity Bias

Upon this idea striking in Gomez’s mind, he proposed the same idea to his adviser, Kalanit Grill-Spector, a professor of psychology in Stanford’s School of Humanities and Sciences thought the same is never going to work.

The more the consideration was talked upon, the more the researchers were faced with the resources and ingredients needed for a successful execution of a natural experiment. Owing to the fact that the first game was released in 1996, kids as much as the age of 5 have played this game throughout their childhood.

The very last prospect that the Stanford researchers focused on was to test out a visual theory called the eccentricity bias. According to this theory, it states and suggests that the size and as well as location of the of a dedicated region of the brain does depend on two distinct factors – how much visual field the object takes up and the part of the vision (central or peripheral) that we are using.

Playing Pokémon on the Nintendo does take up quite a small portion of the player’s centre of view. Thus, based on this theory, it can be said that the preferential brain activations for the Pokemon is localized around in the in the part of the visual cortex that is responsible for processing objects in the central or the foveal visions.

Seed funding

Even with how unsure Grill-Spector was, she gave the green signal to Gomez to apply for seed funding through Stanford’s Center for Cognitive and Neurobiological Imaging. Throwing some light, she said that this is actually the exact reason why seed funding is there, to help take chances on risky experiments that could bring out answers for some of the deep and insightful queries.

Following that, Gomez accumulated 11 participants who have been an avid Pokémon player in their childhood, including himself and Michael Barnett, who is the lab manager as well as the co-author of the study.

The test subjects were placed inside a functional MRI scanner and then shown hundreds of Pokémon characters. The researchers found that their brain responded more to the images in comparison to the ones who didn’t play the game during their childhood.

Gomez said that he used the Pokémon characters from the Game boy game in the initial stage but then used characters from the cartoon in a few subjects. Even though the cartoon characters were a bit pixelated, they were still capable of activating the brain region.

He further found that the activity in the brain was similar across all the subjects. It was also located in the same anatomical structure behind our ears known as the occipitotemporal sulcus, which is often responsible for responding to images of animals.

Final conclusion

The findings from this study do suggest that our brains have the capability of changing in response to some of the experimental learning. Although the same can start from a very early age, there are some restrictions and setbacks that shape and guide how those things unfold. Much like this experiment with the Pokémon, the same is believed to provide with a breakthrough for other studies in the same field.