Excerpted from I Live in the Future and Here's How it Works: Why Your World, Work, and Brain are Being Creatively Disrupted @ 2011 by Nick Bilton. Reprinted by Permission of Crown Business, an imprint of the Crown Publishing Group, a division of Random House, Inc., New York.
Does Your Surgeon Play Video Games?
The next time you have surgery, ask your surgeon if he or she played video games in the past.
A few years ago, researchers quizzed more than thirty surgeons and surgical residents on their video- game habits, identifying those who played video games frequently, those who played less frequently, and those who hardly played at all. Then they put all the surgeons through a laparoscopic surgery simulator, in which thin instruments akin to extremely long chopsticks are inserted into one or more small incisions through the skin along with a small camera that is inserted into an additional small opening. Minimally invasive surgery like this frequently is used for gallbladder removal, gynecologic procedures, and other procedures that once involved major cutting and stitching and could require hours on an operating table.
The researchers found that surgeons or residents who used to be avid video game players had significantly better laparoscopic skills than did those who'd never played. On average, the serious game players were 33 percent faster and made 37 percent fewer errors than their colleagues who didn't have prior video- game experience.
The more video games the surgeons had played in the past, the better their numbers. This wasn't tested on a group of kids who played twelve hours of video games a day and hadn't showered in weeks. These residents and practicing surgeons simply played three or more hours of action video games a week. Some of the more advanced video- game- playing students managed to make 47 percent fewer errors than others and were able to work as much as 39 percent faster.
The results were surprising given the criticism video games have received for rotting young minds, turning upstanding youngsters into juvenile delinquents, and just wasting time. Instead, surgeons and researchers have begun to test whether the games should be a key part of a future surgeon's education, since speed and accuracy are crucial to conquering the learning curve associated with using laparoscopic techniques to perform delicate procedures. Game skill, the researchers theorized, could translate into surgical skill and help cut "medical errors," which have become the eighth leading cause of death in this country.
A couple of years ago, a researcher at Arizona State University tried this out on surgeons at Banner Good Samaritan Medical Center, using a Wii golf club that was reshaped into a laparoscopic probe. One group of residents played a suite of games called Wii Play and a game that involves subtle hand movements, Marble Mania, using the probe, while another group didn't. The game players showed 48 percent more improvement in performing a simulated laparoscopic procedure compared with those who didn't play.
But not every game helps surgeons improve their skills. It turns out that Wii's Marble Mania stimulates the areas of the brain needed for surgery. Games such as Wii Tennis, where you swat your arms in the air as though you were hitting a virtual ball, did not help surgeons' scores. But many studies have found that even limited practice on video games may increase speed and skill in surgery.
It's no surprise, of course, that dexterity improves with practice. But what makes these studies stand out is how effectively human brains can make the leap to conquering new technologies and then putting those new skills to use in innovative and varied ways. For example, these studies consistently show that playing video games improves hand- eye coordination and increases one's capacity for visual attention and spatial distribution, among other skills. These increased brain functions are tied not only to game play but to several other real- world scenarios, including surgery.
You may feel like your brain cannot cope with so much information or jump seamlessly from one medium to another, just as you may have felt in high school that you couldn't learn a foreign language or conquer higher math.
But as the brain faces new language (or acronyms and abbreviations), new visual and auditory stimulation, or new and different ways of processing information, it can change and grow in the most remarkable fashion. In fact, it may well be a natural part of human behavior to seek out and develop unnatural new experiences and technologies and then incorporate them into our daily lives and storytelling.
Nick Bilton is the Lead Technology Writer for The New York Times Bits Blog and a reporter for the paper. His background spans design, user interface, journalism, hardware hacking, and more. He previously worked as a researcher in The Times R&D Labs, looking at the media landscape 2-10 years out.