If you spent a lot of hours immersed in the world of Pokémon as a child, your brain has likely developed a very special cluster of neurons.
New research shows that adults who had extensive visual experience with Pokémon’ as children have developed a unique cluster of brain cells devoted to recognizing the hundreds of different Pokémon species.
Neuroscientist already knew that the brain has remarkable scope for visually recognizing faces, words, numbers, places, colors, and so forth thanks to a cluster of neurons about the size of a pea located in the temporal lobe. But researchers were keen to better understand why these neurons appear where they do when they do.
Unique visual stimuli
A hypothetical way to do this would be to study children who had a unique experience with a new type of visual stimulus. If it was shown that they had developed a unique brain region dedicated just to that recognizing that visual group it could open doors to better understanding the way the brain works.
Of course, finding unique stimuli would be daunting process What could there be that is unique to a certain group of children that others don’t also have exposure too?
Jesse Gomez from the Neurosciences Program at Stanford University realized he was the perfect candidate for the study having spent hours and hours as a child studying and memorizing Pokémon characters through the Pokémon Gameboy game.
Pokémons are animal-like pixelated figures, unlike any other visual representation. Gomez theorized that by examining avid Pokémon players like himself, he could see if the brain had any unique developments.
Players rewarded for intense recall
“What was unique about Pokémon is that there are hundreds of characters, and you have to know everything about them in order to play the game successfully. The game rewards you for individuating hundreds of these little, similar‑looking characters,” Gomez said.
“I figured, ‘If you don’t get a region for that, then it’s never going to happen.’’’
To perform the study Gomez found 11 Pokémon experts and 11 Pokémon movies. The subjects underwent an MRI scan during which they were shown images of faces, animals, cartoons, bodies, words, cars, corridors, and Pokémon.
The Pokémon characters triggered a stronger response in the experts than in the control group of novices.
Pokémon experts share common neuron cluster
The MRI data were then analyzed, and remarkably the researchers found that as predicted there was a new region of the brain that formed in the subjects, dedicated to recognizing Pokémon characters, in the same location across the Pokémon-playing subjects.
So the Pokémon experts all share a common cluster of neurons that is unique to them related to their visual stimuli as children.
“I think one of the lessons from our study is that these brain regions that are activated by our central vision are particularly malleable to extensive experience,” Grill-Spector said.
Gomez calls this phenomena ‘eccentricity bias’, which describes how visual stimulus as a child impacts the brain's topography as an adult.
Gomez had one final point to make and that was, that all the Pokémon experts, who had dedicated hours as a child to the game - all turned out ok.
“I would say to those parents that the people who were scanned here all have their PhDs,” Gomez said.
“They’re all doing very well.”