The New 'Mad' Scientists


A bunch of Belgian neuroscientists finally figured out a way to turn spring break into an article for Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences. In the current issue, they report on what happens to the human brain after playing a lot of Duke Nukem and experiencing total sleep deprivation. Although the study is actually about how the brain stores spatial memories (in which "spatial memories" refers to retained information about virtual towns from the game), it is in fact a very tidy way to make a science experiment out of everyday life.

If the scientists conducting the study aren't themselves in the habit of staying up all night playing video games, they almost certainly have friends, colleagues or children who are. Being neuroscience geeks, their first response when confronted with video game obsession isn't "Dude, what level are you on?" but rather, "Dude, what's it doing to your brain to stay up all night shooting invaders from another world?"

Now they have their answer. The researchers told 24 test subjects to play Duke Nukem, after which one group was given a regular night's sleep, another no sleep at all. Both groups subsequently got two nights of sleep and were then tested for spatial recall. The sleep-deprived gamers remembered the layout of the game far less clearly than the sleepers. It turns out that sleeping allows the brain to reorganize our spatial memories, moving them from the short-term memory zone of the hippocampus to the long-term memory zone of the striatum (an area of the brain also associated with body movement). So, if you stay up all night killing aliens and go to work or school the next day, you won't remember very well the layout of the game you played.

Sure, that's interesting, and it confirms what you might guess: Playing video games instead of sleeping is messing up your brain a little bit. But what I like about this study is the way its elements are cobbled together out of ordinary experience. This isn't the kind of test that can only be dreamed up in the labs of a synchrotron or a giant room full of superfast DNA sequencers. It's right out of our living rooms and laptops.

In the world of social science, there's a long tradition of people studying themselves or their own cultures. Anthropologists who dig live-action role-playing games turn themselves into "participant observers" and write books about friendship rituals in live-action role-playing games. Psychologists in nonmonogamous relationships conduct research on the emotional states of people in nonmonogamous relationships. And ethnographers visit the inner cities where they grew up to create intricate analyses of ghetto graffiti and neighborhood basketball teams.

Is there something wrong with studying ourselves? Some would say it's not good science because self-analysis is never objective. In fact, classic mad scientists, from the fictional Dr. Frankenstein to real doctors throughout the 20th century who jammed electrodes into the brains of asylum inmates, are dubbed crazy for turning the people around them into lab rats. The madness of these scientists is linked to their propensity for converting their communities into elaborate research projects.

Those Belgian neurologists, although they could hardly be accused of harming anybody, were therefore close to "mad" on a scale of mad to scientist. They took some people engaged in ordinary activities -- let's face it: sleep-deprived video-game playing isn't that unusual -- and made them into a bunch of test subjects. There's something deeply weird about that. It's also exactly the sort of experimentation that scientific inquiry should inspire. Sometimes the results may be silly, and they were downright scary in an era before review boards regulated tests on human subjects. But today such experiments encourage us to question what we take for granted in our daily lives. After all, it's the urge to understand the everyday that drives other MRI nerds to study how the brain processes vision and geneticists to investigate which genes regulate aging.

I'm glad I live in a world where everything can be turned into an impromptu scientific paper. I'd rather be a research subject than an undiscovered condition.

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