We know that having experience and training in a specific domain enhances our ability in that domain – practice effect. This holds true for perceptual tasks as well. Practicing on visual tasks literally makes us better at detection, something known as perceptual learning. Unfortunately,perceptual learning that emerges as a result of training is often domain-specific and does not generalize over different tasks, locations and targets. In other words, if you practice detecting circles, you will only get better at detecting circles, not at any other objects. But that’s nothing new. After all, that’s why having certain visual skills and abilities is highly valuable.
A crucial component of the application of perceptual learning, therefore, concerns training that will benefit untrained conditions and tasks as well as trained ones.
Playing action video games might be doing exactly this. The table below (1) summarizes reported cognitive abilities found to be enhanced by action video games experience:
These findings pose the question of how exactly action video games enhance each of the above cognitive abilities. The leading mechanism believed to be operating is learning to learn, rather than distinct improvements for each task (2). All cognitive abilities found to be enhanced in players share one fundamental computational principle: All require subjects to make a decision based on a limited amount of noisy data. Visual learning is mediated by changes in perceptual templates. Improved perceptual templates arise from reweighting (adjusting) the connectivity between different visual areas, which happens while practicing. The idea is that action video game players make use of better tuned visual templates and hence perform better at untrained tasks (3).
If you are interested in reading a review on the putative neural mechanism and computational principles of learning to learn – (2)
Another good review on perceptual expertise – (4)
Because action video games transfer skills to a variety of tasks, the practical applications are highly important such as education and visual rehabilitation.
(1) Boot, W. R., Blakely, D. P., & Simons, D. J. (2011). Do action video games improve perception and cognition?. Frontiers in psychology, 2, 226.
(2) Bavelier, D., Green, C. S., Pouget, A., & Schrater, P. (2012). Brain plasticity through the life span: learning to learn and action video games. Annual review of neuroscience, 35, 391-416.
(3) Bejjanki, V. R., Zhang, R., Li, R., Pouget, A., Green, C. S., Lu, Z. L., & Bavelier, D. (2014). Action video game play facilitates the development of better perceptual templates. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, 111(47), 16961-16966.
(4) Ahissar, M., & Hochstein, S. (2004). The reverse hierarchy theory of visual perceptual learning. Trends in cognitive sciences, 8(10), 457-464.