Playing Super Mario 64 Increases Brain Health in Adults

For older adults, playing video games isn't just a way for older adults to keep in touch with the younger generation — it might be also be a way to stay in touch with memory itself.

Playing Super Mario 64 Increases Brain Health in Adults
The perennially awesome Mario and the antagonist Bowser, about to duel.

For older adults, playing video games isn't just a way to stay in touch with the younger generation — it might also be a way to stay in touch with perception itself.


A new study published in the journal PLOS ONE showed that regularly playing Super Mario 64 for six months seemed to improve memory and increase the amount of grey matter in the brains of older adults, ages 55 to 75. The findings could someday improve treatment options for cognitive impairment and Alzheimer's disease.

In the study, researchers divided 33 participants into three groups: one played Super Mario 64, one took online piano lessons, and one served as a control group that did neither activity. The video game and music lesson groups completed at least 30 minutes of training for five days per week. Some participants completed more training than was required. In fact, two participants in the video game group beat Super Mario 64 in its entirety and went on to play Super Mario Galaxy, a similar game.

In the paper, the researchers hypothesized that 3D-platform games can boost cognition and memory by serving as something like a mental workout. They referenced past research on young adults that showed how playing Super Mario 64 increased grey matter in the cerebellum. This new study, however, is the first to explore whether 3D-platform games can have similar effects on the neural structures of older adults.

But why Mario instead of, say, a racing game?

In 3D-platform games like Mario, players must familiarize themselves with a virtual world to succeed. They must build  “cognitive maps” of the world as they play, memorizing landmarks and other salient features. These kinds of spatial learning processes take place in the hippocampus, one of several regions of the brain examined in the study.

The researchers proposed that playing Super Mario 64 for 6 months would increase the grey matter in several parts of the brain:

Hippocampus —  “The relationship between the hippocampus and 3D-platform games is thought to be driven by the fact that 3D-platform games require the use of spatial memory processes to build a cognitive map of in-game environments and therefore requires learning that depends on the hippocampus.”

Cerebellum — “Because of Super Mario 64’s requirement for fine motor coordination, we also expected 3D-platform training to increase grey matter in the cerebellum.”

Dorsolateral prefrontal cortex — “Super Mario 64 requires ample planning and the internal storage and manipulation of in-game information. We therefore predicted that training would increase grey matter in the dorsolateral prefrontal cortex (DLPFC).” The researchers also suggested video game training would boost cognitive performance among the older adults.


 

The results showed that participants who spent the six months playing Mario experienced improved short-term memory and showed increased grey matter in the cerebellum and hippocampus. Participants who took music lessons showed increased grey matter in the dorsolateral prefrontal cortex and cerebellum. 

However, the control group, composed of adults who did neither video game or music training, showed atrophy in the three regions of the brain researchers examined.

Increased grey matter seen here in MRI scan of video game group adult after six months

The researchers can't yet say for sure whether it's 3D-platform video games or simply learning something new that staves off the degradation of grey matter and memory. One reason is because the size of the study was relatively small, which limits the conclusions that can be reasonably drawn from it. Still, study author Gregory West, an assistant psychology professor at the University of Montreal, thinks the results are promising for the treatment of cognitive impairment and Alzheimer's disease.

"The good news is that we can reverse those effects and increase volume by learning something new, and games like Super Mario 64, which activate the hippocampus, seem to hold some potential in that respect," West said.

 

 

This is what aliens would 'hear' if they flew by Earth

A Mercury-bound spacecraft's noisy flyby of our home planet.

Image source: sdecoret on Shutterstock/ESA/Big Think
Surprising Science
  • There is no sound in space, but if there was, this is what it might sound like passing by Earth.
  • A spacecraft bound for Mercury recorded data while swinging around our planet, and that data was converted into sound.
  • Yes, in space no one can hear you scream, but this is still some chill stuff.

First off, let's be clear what we mean by "hear" here. (Here, here!)

Sound, as we know it, requires air. What our ears capture is actually oscillating waves of fluctuating air pressure. Cilia, fibers in our ears, respond to these fluctuations by firing off corresponding clusters of tones at different pitches to our brains. This is what we perceive as sound.

All of which is to say, sound requires air, and space is notoriously void of that. So, in terms of human-perceivable sound, it's silent out there. Nonetheless, there can be cyclical events in space — such as oscillating values in streams of captured data — that can be mapped to pitches, and thus made audible.

BepiColombo

Image source: European Space Agency

The European Space Agency's BepiColombo spacecraft took off from Kourou, French Guyana on October 20, 2019, on its way to Mercury. To reduce its speed for the proper trajectory to Mercury, BepiColombo executed a "gravity-assist flyby," slinging itself around the Earth before leaving home. Over the course of its 34-minute flyby, its two data recorders captured five data sets that Italy's National Institute for Astrophysics (INAF) enhanced and converted into sound waves.

Into and out of Earth's shadow

In April, BepiColombo began its closest approach to Earth, ranging from 256,393 kilometers (159,315 miles) to 129,488 kilometers (80,460 miles) away. The audio above starts as BepiColombo begins to sneak into the Earth's shadow facing away from the sun.

The data was captured by BepiColombo's Italian Spring Accelerometer (ISA) instrument. Says Carmelo Magnafico of the ISA team, "When the spacecraft enters the shadow and the force of the Sun disappears, we can hear a slight vibration. The solar panels, previously flexed by the Sun, then find a new balance. Upon exiting the shadow, we can hear the effect again."

In addition to making for some cool sounds, the phenomenon allowed the ISA team to confirm just how sensitive their instrument is. "This is an extraordinary situation," says Carmelo. "Since we started the cruise, we have only been in direct sunshine, so we did not have the possibility to check effectively whether our instrument is measuring the variations of the force of the sunlight."

When the craft arrives at Mercury, the ISA will be tasked with studying the planets gravity.

Magentosphere melody

The second clip is derived from data captured by BepiColombo's MPO-MAG magnetometer, AKA MERMAG, as the craft traveled through Earth's magnetosphere, the area surrounding the planet that's determined by the its magnetic field.

BepiColombo eventually entered the hellish mangentosheath, the region battered by cosmic plasma from the sun before the craft passed into the relatively peaceful magentopause that marks the transition between the magnetosphere and Earth's own magnetic field.

MERMAG will map Mercury's magnetosphere, as well as the magnetic state of the planet's interior. As a secondary objective, it will assess the interaction of the solar wind, Mercury's magnetic field, and the planet, analyzing the dynamics of the magnetosphere and its interaction with Mercury.

Recording session over, BepiColombo is now slipping through space silently with its arrival at Mercury planned for 2025.

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