A psychologist explains what Pokémon GO is doing to our brains

It’s all about the hippocampus


With Pokémon GO taking the world by storm and bringing a lot of us back to our childhoods, we wondered what kind of impact playing the game could be having on our brains.

Some studies have shown that the brains of video gamers and drug addicts look similar, because both activities trigger the reward systems in our brain making us experience pleasure. In fact, Dr. Elan Barenholtz, an associate professor in the Centre for Complex Systems and Brain Sciences at Florida Atlantic University, told Los Angeles Magazine that augmented and virtual reality games have created a “dangerous path” by offering a far more rewarding alternative to reality.

But could there also be some psychological benefits from playing Pokémon GO? We spoke to Dr. John King, Senior Lecturer at the UCL Research Department of Clinical, Educational and Health Psychology, about the effects of Pokemon GO on the brain, and how it can develop our hippocampus, the part of the brain that provides us with spatial memory.

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What are the psychological effects of Pokémon GO on the brain?

There’s some evidence that if you use certain parts of your brain, neural plasticity means you get better connections going on and improved capacities. An earlier finding about this in terms of the hippocampus is the taxi driver study – Eleanor Maguire looked at the brains of London taxi drivers and she found there was a slight increase in the volume of their hippocampi suggesting that their over learning and sophisticated representation of the map of London had led to those changes in that particular part of the brain.

In other words, by using it, they boosted it.

I wouldn’t like to say that that’s going on with these kids to any great extent but I would’ve thought that they’ve developed a richer understanding of the layout of their local area and it might encourage them then to take that approach when they’re learning new locations.

How do you think the game could be affecting adults?

I wouldn’t say there would be any difference really in terms of spatial learning. I think there’s less worry with adults in terms of safety, but in terms of brain development, I think one of the interesting things about the hippocampus is that it’s a part of the brain where plasticity continues into adulthood.

Some parts of the brain are less plastic as we get older, but the hippocampus does maintain some plasticity because that’s how it performs it’s main job of laying down memories.

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Do you think there could be any risks to the brain from playing the game?

I wouldn’t have thought so. There are probably more risks in the level of behaviour than in terms of anything bad happening to the brain.

People could walk off a curb because they’re looking at their phones instead of looking at the world. They’re desperate to get that next Drowzee.

What do you think the difference is psychologically between augmented reality and virtual reality?

That’s a really big topic. I think psychologically, what virtual reality allows you to do is create an entirely separate space. So in terms of all of the visual and auditory inputs and the movements that people are making, they’re essentially acting in a different space. So the implications psychologically are quite vast in terms of what you could do with it.

With augmented reality, I think it’s psychologically much more interesting in the way that it superimposes information into the world. At the moment I think it’s only limited. With Pokémon GO, the superimposing of the little creature into the world is not very effective; there’s no real sense of scale, it’s just pasted onto your camera screen.

But that is going to get a lot better with new headsets. If that sort of technology becomes ubiquitous and lightweight to build something like an ordinary pair of glasses that you could wear, that allows layering of information in such a way that I think it could have huge social and psychological impacts.

The word reality in the title is really important. We talk about people hallucinating and we characterise that as a mental illness. But we’re effectively building the technology to apply hallucinations to the world – hallucinations that we want and hallucinations that we think are useful. But I think it blurs the boundaries between grounded actual reality and something else, a reality which is summoned from our own desires, from larger social forces. I think it’ll be really interesting to see how that’s governed if it ever comes about, and who decides what we’re able to see and what we’re not.

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Do you think that the augmented reality could be preventing us from engaging with the real world?

No, I don’t think so. I think those people are very much engaged with the world, they’re much more engaged and involved than when they were sitting in their houses playing Pokémon on their DS. This seems to be very social, it’s bringing people together in groups as they walk around doing this. I feel like they’re much more engaged with the world. But, on the other hand, I think there’s a general problem with screen technologies where people are spending their time looking into their screen and communicating with people that aren’t there rather than people who are there.

I can imagine that could get worse with augmented reality where people are walking around and don’t know what they’re seeing. It will introduce both new ways of connecting and new ways of disconnecting.

What about for sufferers of anxiety or depression – do you think the game could be helping them to overcome their mental illnesses?

That’s a very interesting question, I wouldn’t like to generalise on that. I would say that there are some forms of anxiety and depression which lead people to not want to go out of their homes. Anxiety can make people fearful of contact with other people and depression can make people withdraw from their normal activities. If Pokémon is something that those people find enough pleasure and enthusiasm in that it draws them out into the world, then I think that would probably be a good thing. But I wouldn’t like to speculate as to whether that’s true.

For example, with depressed people, one reason that they’re withdrawn from the world is often that they’re not finding much pleasure in anything, so it seems unlikely that something so simple as a little game is going to draw them out of that mindset. Similarly, with someone who’s anxious enough about going out that it’s a clinical problem, I suspect wanting to collect Pokémon wouldn’t be enough to get them out of their houses.

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Do you think there should be a recommended amount of time for playing the game? 

I think there’s a vast range of different opinions on it. Again, it’s not a good idea to generalise. One person who’s spending a lot of time on screens could be doing something social or very functional in terms of their development whereas some might be doing something which others would perceive as a waste of time.

Whether PokémonGO is functional and developmentally helpful or whether it’s a waste of time may be down to your own individual perspective. In terms of how long would be a good idea to play it… I mean it’s never a good idea to do anything to a level where it interferes with other things. I think there’s a lot of common sense that needs to be applied.