Wonderland Podcast with Steven Johnson: Episode 6

Clever Like a Fox

Or, what happens inside our brains when we play?

11 min read

A look into how games and childhood play encourage the kind of adaptive, flexible thinking we need to navigate a complex world.

Special guests: Alison Gopnik, Shawn Green, Daniel Chao, and Asi Burak.

Hosted by Steven Johnson
Produced by Kristen Taylor
Audio engineering & music editing by Jason Oberholtzer
Theme music by Steven Johnson

Listen to the previous episode: Greater Than Zero (Or, the Politics of Serious Games)
Listen to the next episode: “
In Pursuit of Condiments (Or, How the Spice Trade Changed Our Palates)

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STEVEN JOHNSON: Many years ago I wrote a book called Everything Bad Is Good For You, which was an extended defense of popular culture, and particularly video games. One of the opening anecdotes was a story about showing my then seven-year-old nephew the video game SimCity. Now, most of you probably know SimCity. It’s one of the classic game franchises of all time. You play a city mayor and you can raise taxes and build bridges and subways and zone different regions for industry or commercial development. But since my nephew was so young, I figured I’d give them a pretty superficial tour of the game. Basically, a kind of show and tell.

I was like, “Look, there’s the playground I built, and there’s a tall skyscraper, and there’s my mayor’s house where I live.” At one point I showed him a neighborhood of factories that I’d been having trouble with. They were run down and covered with graffiti, and some of them were abandoned, and I said, “I don’t know what my problem is with this area, I just, I can’t seem to get it to work.” And then he turned to me and he said, “I think you need to lower your industrial tax rates.”

It was, it was one of those moments where you feel the world just pivot a little in your head. Here was this seven-year-old, where if you’d sat him down in an urban studies classroom and tried to teach him about the relationship between tax rates and industrial development, he’d be asleep or out the door in a split second, but something about the game was helping him absorb an extremely complicated idea without even realizing. And it always left me with a question about what was happening in my nephew’s mind as he analyzed the SimCity system. It’s a question that neuroscientists and developmental psychologists have started to answer. What happens inside our brains when we play?

I’m Steven Johnson, and this is “Wonderland.” “Wonderland” is brought to you by Microsoft, and also by Riverhead Books, the publisher of my new book, Wonderland: How Play Made the Modern World.

A few decades ago, the political science professor Philip Tetlock launched a fascinating, and now pretty famous, experiment, where he asked pundits and public intellectuals to make predictions about future events. So he asked them questions like, “Will a member of the European Union withdraw over the coming 10 years?”, or, “Will there be a recession in the United States in the next five years?” Tetlock collected 28,000 predictions over the course of his research and then had the patience to sit around and wait to see if the predictions actually turned out to be accurate. And the results, once he finished evaluating all the forecasts, were appallingly bad. For longterm predictions most experts actually performed worse than random guesses would have done, yet Tetlock did uncover a statistically meaningful group of forecasters who were actually quite accurate, even at longterm forecasts. He went back and analyzed the way this group went about making its predictions compared to the rest of the pack.

It turned out that the unsuccessful predictors tended to see the world through the lens of one big idea or theory, and tended to be far more confident that their interpretation was the correct one. The successful predictors, on the other hand, had no overarching framework, and often drew on different fields of expertise in coming up with their forecasts. And they were much less confident in their model, much more willing to go back and revise based on new information. Tetlock borrowed a metaphor from the philosopher Isaiah Berlin to describe the difference. Quote, “The Fox knows many things, but the hedgehog knows one big thing.” For Tetlock, the foxes were those successful predictors, attuned to a wide range of potential sources, willing to admit uncertainty, not devoted to an overarching theory. Compared to the single-minded hedgehogs, the foxes had a mental approach that was better suited to a complex, interconnected, ever-changing world.

Now you may be asking, what does this have to do with games and the brain? Well, it turns out that if you study the brain development of actual foxes and hedgehogs, the real animals, not the metaphors, one of the key differences between them is how much time they spend at play.

ALISON GOPNIK: Gee, I wonder what childhood looks like for foxes and hedgehogs.

STEVEN JOHNSON: That’s Alison Gopnik, author of the new book The Gardener and The Carpenter, and many others, who we last heard from in episode four.

ALISON GOPNIK: It turns out that foxes and hedgehogs are classic examples of this precocial, altricial distinction, so the hedgehogs basically can do their one thing, which is roll up in a lot of prickles from the time they’re very young, they mature very quickly, and they’re just not very flexible or very smart as, as adults. I have a friend, Lucy Jacobs, who’s a great comparative psychologist who loves all animals and will tell you about how smart they all are and I said, “How about hedgehogs?” “No, no, hedgehogs are just dumb, basically dumb animals.” And of course foxes are proverbially clever, cunning, and it turns out that, this is a little creepy, but it turns out that fox play is that the parents are devoted to the babies in the way that you have to be if you have babies who are immature for a long time, and they actually bring live prey back into the nest and instead of just feeding it to the babies, they let the babies chase and kill the live prey as a form of play.

STEVEN JOHNSON: I think the fox and the hedgehog metaphor is a really helpful one in categorizing the different kinds of play that children and adults engage with. When you think about video games, Tetris is a hedgehog game. You’re exercising your spacial, geometric skills when you play that game, but that’s about it. There’s no longterm planning, no language, no spatial mapping, no roleplaying. You’re just rotating one shape after another. And compare that to a complex simulation game like SimCity.

My kids and I used to play a game called Dawn of Discovery, and this wasn’t an educational game or anything, though I think it was an incredible experience for all of us playing it. The game simulated having a kind of 16th century trading empire at the height of the spice trade, and one of the objectives you could set out for yourself was building a cathedral in your main capital city. But to do this, you had to solve a massive number of different problems.

You had to create enough wealth in your town to support an elite class that would be interested in the cathedral, and those elites needed certain fancy spices to be satisfied, which meant developing trade relationships with other nations. And you had to develop stone quarries to supply the building blocks for the cathedral, and you needed to raise enough finances through taxation so you could pay for the construction, and so on. So for that one objective, building a cathedral, you had to think like a city mayor and an urban planner, like a sociologist, like a spice trader, or like an industrial magnate. That’s thinking like a fox.

The fascinating thing is that we can now observe the impact of games on actual patterns of brain development, and the key word in understanding that impact is this concept of plasticity. It’s worth pausing for a second to understand what that means. Every few weeks you’ll hear some alarming news report about how some part of modern culture, from video games to Facebook to whatever, is causing “changes” to our brains. This is normally reported as if it’s a bad thing, but the truth is everything that happens to you changes your brain in some fashion or another. We want to have brains capable of rewiring themselves based on new experiences. That’s called learning. Neuroplasticity is the technical term for that capacity for change.

ALISON GOPNIK: Just very characteristically, and especially in humans, we have this early period when many, many new connections are being formed, and the brain’s very plastic, very changeable. None of the connections are working terribly well, as anyone who’s ever, you know, tried to get a child dressed to get out to preschool knows, and then you’ve got this early period of exploration of possibility, when the brain’s very sensitive to, “OK, what is this particular environment that I’d been plunked into all about?” And then you have a later period where the pathways that get used a lot are maintained and strengthened and myelinated, and they become more efficient, and then the ones that aren’t just disappeared, just are pruned. There’s evidence that adults have more plasticity available than we would have thought, we would have thought before. But still, if you’re comparing adults to children, they don’t have as much plasticity as they do when they’re children, and that plasticity is kind of like the neuro, the neurological equivalent of what you see behaviorly when you see play. And there’s some evidence, at least with rats, that one of the effects that having an early period of play has is to enable greater plasticity as an adult.

STEVEN JOHNSON: Now, plasticity is so important that we are actually now beginning to see consumer devices that directly stimulate the brain to make it more plastic.

DANIEL CHAO: Neuroplasticity, generally, is the way our brain builds new circuits. So hyper-plasticity would be a state where the brain is able to create new circuits faster.

My name is Daniel Chao. I am the co-founder and CEO of Halo Neuroscience.

STEVEN JOHNSON: The Halo Sport System, which is still in beta, connects a smartphone app to a specially-designed pair of headphones engineered to stimulate the brains of users.

DANIEL CHAO: Our form of neuro-stimulation relies on electricity, so the use of externally-applied electric fields to interact with the brain to stimulate a temporary state of hyper-plasticity or hyper-learning. Today, there’s relatively few Halos Sports out there in the world. It’s really just Olympic athletes, professional athletes, and the military that have access to the technology. To the same extent that we would help, want to help professional athletes and the military, we want to explore opportunities in a stroke model, for example, so half of people who suffer from stroke have some sort of motor disability, and their opportunity for improvement, especially in the chronic phase, is very poor. So what if we could use hyper-plasticity, paired with physical therapy, to accelerate a stroke victim’s training results? We’ve, we’ve actually already started clinical trials to explore this opportunity.

STEVEN JOHNSON: But it turns out you don’t need to wire yourself up to electrodes to make your brain more plastic. Remember how animals like rats and foxes and human children use play states as a kind of scaffold for flexible adaptive thinking? The same effect holds true for adult minds, with a much more common form of stimulation. Playing video games.

SHAWN GREEN: The types of games that we look at, we call action video games, which are often the more maligned types. They’re the first-person shooters and the third-person shooters.

STEVEN JOHNSON: With his colleague Daphne Bavelier, Shawn Green has conducted a series of studies that demonstrate how video games increase neuro-plasticity, even among adult players.

SHAWN GREEN: We don’t study the violent aspect of them. We study the fact that they have really interesting, or they place really interesting demands on the perceptual, the cognitive system. To some extent, you know, most of the theories of learning and plasticity suggest if you place load upon a system, it’s going to produce some enhancements in those systems, and so we’ve looked at the impact of playing these games on a host of abilities. So for instance, you know, one of these is what we call contrast sensitivity, one of the lowest-level visual abilities. It’s just the to tell the different parts of the world have different luminance or lightness. It’s basically how, you know, we tell that there are objects in the world.

And so we’ve looked at the effect of playing these action video games on contrast sensitivity, and so what we’ve seen is, if you train someone who typically doesn’t play action video games for 50 hours on an action game, they’ll show improvements in their contrast sensitivity abilities. Whereas if you train them on a different non-action game, you don’t see those same effects, which suggests that it’s really the act of training on an action video game that’ll improve even these really low-level visual abilities.

STEVEN JOHNSON: Even the simplest action games are effectively teaching the visual system of the brain to see more clearly, and those improvements carry on after you’ve left the world of the game behind.

SHAWN GREEN: Basically all learning is subject to forgetting. If you bring people back to the lab, somewhere between, in the case of contrast sensitivity, they were brought back anywhere from six months to two years later, and they retained, say, 60 to 70 percent of the improvements. So we know it’s, it’s certainly lasting. Lots of factors will control how long it lasts, including, you know, what the skill is, how plastic the skill is, how much training you did. But it’s certainly something that’s, that we think of as real learning.

STEVEN JOHNSON: I asked Shawn what he thought was the most advanced form of cognition that was influenced by these action games.

SHAWN GREEN: So yeah, if we’re going to build a hierarchy, I guess it would be something, what we would call cognitive flexibility, which usually will encompass things like the ability to switch between tasks efficiently. Let’s say you are reading something on a web browser and then you get a text, you have to do what’s called a task switch. You go from considering what’s on the webpage to considering your phone, and we know that you actually pay a cost to doing that switch for about 150 milliseconds or so, really, all you’re doing is switching task sets. You are neither processing the web browser nor processing the phone.

What you are doing is switching between those, and so playing these types of games actually reduces that cost that you pay, which is of interest given how many such switches we do in a given day, especially the fact that technology doesn’t just allow for attempting to do multiple things at once. In some cases it almost demands it. If you pay, say, a 100 millisecond smaller cost for every one of those switches, it actually adds up to a not insignificant amount of time.

STEVEN JOHNSON: The scientific understanding of play in the brain has advanced so far since I was playing SimCity with my nephew that we are now seeing a generation of games designed specifically to improve cognitive function.

ASI BURAK: What’s going on now with neuro-gaming is that some people showed in, at least in research, that they can actually make impact when you play a game, directly on your brain, in real-time.

STEVEN JOHNSON: That’s Asi Burak, chairman of the organization Games For Change, who was also featured in episode four.

ASI BURAK: Take Adam Gazzaley. His first video game was to fight mental decline, and he did it with a senior population, and he showed that when they, those seniors played this game four times a week over a month, the positive effect he had on helping them with multitasking, with memory, lasted for six months. Then he moved to other populations, and now he’s doing it commercially and is going for ADHD, depression, stress. What we’re talking here is about an effect that is like medicine, and that’s, by the way, why he is going for FDA approval. He wants to be the first video game that gets FDA approval, that can be prescribed by doctors. If he can go all the way and get the FDA approval, it’s going to open a whole industry to be very interested in the idea that you can give someone iPads rather than medicine and have similar effect.

STEVEN JOHNSON: My children will be delighted to learn that they may someday be prescribed sessions of Halo or Call of Duty to combat early-onset Alzheimer’s. And it’s clear, from talking to the researchers and the game designers, that we are only at the beginning of understanding the relationship between games and the brain. It seems to me that one of the most profound differences between games and almost every other form of popular entertainment is that playing games is all about making decisions, whether it’s the hedgehog-like decisions of rotating geometric shapes in Tetris, or the fox-like multidisciplinary decisions of building a cathedral in Dawn of Discovery.

SHAWN GREEN: All of our theories of learning are built on making errors and then fixing them, and so if you don’t make decisions and take actions, there’s no good way to make a mistake and then nothing to actually provide a signal that says you need to learn something. The fact that you are constantly making decisions means that you are constantly making predictions that can then be improved, so that’s going to put the brain in a state that says, “All right, well there must be some need for plasticity here.”

STEVEN JOHNSON: Novels can extend our imagination. Pop songs can pull at our heartstrings. Movies can spellbind us with thrilling narratives. But games force us to exercise a different part of the brain. They force us to make choices, sometimes dozens of times a minute. Yes, sometimes what you are deciding is which vehicle to use in your Grand Theft Auto heist, but even in a controversial game like that, you are drawing upon many different kinds of information to make your choice. The geography of the map you’re exploring, the different skills of your teammates, your current finances, and the cost of the vehicles available to you, and many others.

It may look like adolescent violence, but it is, behind the scenes, a very rich kind of cognition. It’s a fox’s way of looking at the world, not a hedgehog’s. You analyze all the variables of a complex and changing situation, you think about how all those variables interact with your overarching goals, and you make a choice.



Listen to the previous episode: Greater Than Zero (Or, the Politics of Serious Games)
Listen to the next episode: “
In Pursuit of Condiments (Or, How the Spice Trade Changed Our Palates)

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How We Get To Next was a magazine that explored the future of science, technology, and culture from 2014 to 2019. Wonderland is a ten-part podcast series from Steven Johnson about the past and future of play and innovation. Featuring conversations about creativity and invention with leading contemporary scientists, programmers, musicians, and more, the show is brought to you by Microsoft, and by Riverhead Books.

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