Youth Athletes: Video Games, Building Blocks and Your Brain's Dark Energy

Dan PetersonCorrespondent INovember 5, 2011

To get your budding superstar ready for his sports future, should they play with high tech video games or good old building blocks?  Well, according to two new studies, that depends on if you’re training their creativity or their spatial awareness.  Also, in our weekly round-up of brain science news, we find out about our brain’s “default-mode network” which manages our brain’s neurons when trying to focus on an object.

For most sports, athletes require the ability to quickly make sense of their surroundings, then to be creative in their reaction to this ever changing environment.  Developing these dual skills often starts in the early years with non-sport activities.

Nora Newcombe, co-director of the Spatial Intelligence and Learning Center (SILC) at Temple University, found that when children play with blocks interactively with their parents, they hear more language relating to spatial terms like “over”, “above” and “around”, then when playing with other types of toys.

“When parents use spatial language, they draw attention to spatial concepts,” said Newcombe. “The development of a spatial vocabulary is critical for developing spatial ability and awareness.”

To compare the different types of play, Newcombe divided the children and parents into three  groups; “free” play with no directions, “pre-assembled” play with blocks configured in set shapes and “guided” play where specific graphic instructions are given to build certain structures.  Parents and children in the “guided” group produced significantly more spatial talk than the other two groups.

Her research appears in a recent issues of Mind, Brain and Education.

“There is evidence that variations in the spatial language young children hear, which directs their attention to important aspects of the spatial environment, may be one of the mechanisms that contribute to differences in spatial ability,” concluded Newcombe.

OK, so after your future Tom Brady can make better sense of the 3D space around him, its time to get his creative juices flowing.  Linda Jackson, professor of psychology at Michigan State University, found that the more kids, both boys and girls, played video games, the more creative they were in drawing pictures or writing stories.  However, the use of cell phones, the Internet and computers for non-gaming reasons did not do anything significant for creativity.

The study surveyed 491 middle school students on their level of gaming as well as use of other technology and then tested them on the Torrance Test of Creativity-Figural.  The widely used Torrance test involves drawing an “interesting” picture from a curved shape followed by a story about the picture.

Jackson hopes that game designers will use this result in their future plans. “Video games can be designed to optimize the development of creativity while retaining their entertainment values such that a new generation of video games will blur the distinction between education and entertainment,” she said.

Finally, neuroscientists are learning more about the intricate network of neurons in our brains and their activity when we’re focused on something.  In high-pressure sports situations, focus  and concentration is often essential to block out the extraneous noise.  When we zone in on a specific target, a part of our brain, known as the attention network of neurons, is activated.

At the same time, other parts of the brain shut off as if to prevent us from being distracted by anything else.  This “default-mode network”, as its known, is believed to be used for quieter times in our life when we contemplate ourselves for self-perception, recollections, imagination,  and inner thoughts. Because of the mysterious nature of the network, one of its discoverers, Marcus Raichle, dubbed it the “brain’s dark energy.”

Now, French researchers at the Lyon Neuroscience Research Centre have learned more details about the operation of this network when we are trying to concentrate on a single task.  In a study just published in the Journal of Neuroscience, they found that the default-mode network shuts itself off when we’re searching for an object.  However, within a tenth of second after we find the object, the network turns itself back on.  If this network does not deactivate itself enough during the search, it will take longer to find the object.

So, if we can find a video game that requires parents and children to build structures without being distracted, then it should be on every young athlete’s daily schedule!

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