Rewiring the brain | Inquirer News

Rewiring the brain

(Second of three parts)

Stanford University professor Philip Zimbardo says violent video games have been associated with violent behavior.


The Columbine High School student killers had immersed themselves in the game  Doom  before going on their murderous spree.  Some American teens had killed their parents for keeping them away from their games.   A Norwegian murder suspect reportedly used World of Warcraft and Call of Duty for shooting practice before  killing more than 75 people.

Of course, millions of other gamers are law-abiding citizens.  But Zimbardo argues that several studies, such as that by L. Rowell Huesmann of the University of Michigan and Laramie Taylor of the University of California-Davis, which was published in the 2006 Annual Review of Public Health, show that people who play violent games tend to become more aggressive afterwards.



What makes so many people, especially males, so addicted to games and porn?  Addiction seems hardwired into our brains.

In the 1950s, psychologists had already pinpointed our brain’s pleasure center, found in the limbic system.  When rats were allowed to use a lever to stimulate electrically  their limbic system, they “self-stimulated hundreds of times per hour.”

What is worse, “even when given the option to eat when hungry or to stimulate the pleasure center, the rats chose the stimulation until they were physically exhausted and on the brink of death,” Zimbardo and psychologist Nikita Duncan tell CNN, as they discuss their book “The Demise of Guys:  Why Boys Are Struggling and What We Can Do About It.”

Nothing counts but the present moment, neither consequences from the past nor plans for the future.  Nothing is as important as being in the game or indulging in porn right now.

“This new kind of human addictive arousal traps users into an expanded present hedonistic time zone,” Zimbardo and Duncan say.  “Past and future are distant and remote as the present moment expands to dominate everything.”

In the 1990s, Zimbardo had already observed young men on campus so immersed in video games “to the extent that they were giving up the real, face-to-face world for the virtual world.”


Instead of just offering a break from work, video games and porn can become addictions. That is where the problem lies.

Traditional addiction, such as to alcohol or drugs, is based on the compulsion to have more and more of the same thing.

“Video game and porn addictions are different,” Zimbardo and Duncan say.  “They are  ‘arousal addictions,’ where the attraction is in the novelty, the variety or the surprise factor of the content. Sameness is soon habituated; newness heightens excitement.”

Consequences are dire.  “The excessive use of video games and online porn in pursuit of the next thing is creating a generation of risk-averse guys who are unable (and unwilling) to navigate the complexities and risks inherent to real-life relationships, school and employment,” they say.

Changes in the brain

When the next edition of “Diagnostic and Statistical Manual for Mental Disorders,” the bible of psychiatrists, psychologists, and other mental health professionals, comes out next year, Internet addiction may be included, at least in the appendix.

In 2007, according to Maressa Orzack of Harvard University’s McLean Hospital, around 5 to 10 percent of surfers have some form of addiction.  The percentage might be higher today.

In 2009, Chinese researchers in Shanghai Jiantong Medical School found a decrease in “brain gray matter density” in Internet-addicted teens.  In 2011, Kai Yuan and Wei Qin of Xidian University in China found more “microstructure abnormalities,” including the shrinking of surface brain matter.

In June 2011, the article “High Wired” in the magazine Scientific American gives the details:  “Several small regions in online addicts’ brains shrunk, in some cases as much as by 10 to 20 percent.  The affected regions included the dorsolateral prefrontal cortex, rostral anterior cingulate cortex, supplementary motor area and parts of the cerebellum.

“What’s more, the longer the addiction’s duration, the more pronounced the tissue reduction,” the article continues.  “The study’s authors suggest this shrinkage could lead to negative effects, such as reduced inhibition of inappropriate behavior and diminished goal orientation.”

Addicts have more problems storing and remembering information, and their decision-making abilities are “impaired—including those to trump the desire to stay online and return to the real world.”

With such hardwired changes deep in the brain, no wonder gaming addiction is so difficult to deal with.  Other studies have linked addiction to depression, impulsiveness, aggression, poor school performance, job loss, marriage breakdowns.

Zimbardo links addiction to poor social skills.  “The illusion of connectedness when a person is playing a video game is no substitute for real interaction.  Boys who invest hours upon hours in these pursuits are less able to socialize themselves when it comes to real life.”

(To be concluded next week)

Catch Philip Zimbardo’s talk at E-mail the author at [email protected]

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