Video game experience readies brain for more challenging tasks

You can read how researchers from the Centre for Vision Research at York University used functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) to examine the effect of video-game experience on the neural control of increasingly complex visuomotor tasks in young men, in the October issue of Cortex, an Elsevier journal, wrote Sept. 27.

Lead author and PhD candidate Joshua Granek and colleagues concluded that the reorganization of the brain’s cortical network, which they discovered in the young men with significant video game-playing experience, gave them an advantage not only in playing video games but also in performing other complex visuomotor tasks.

The authors wrote that other studies have suggested that individuals skilled in video game-playing have a more efficient brain network for controlling movement that includes the prefrontal, premotor, primary sensorimotor and parietal cortices.

Senior investigator Lauren Sergio, a professor in York’s School of Kinesiology & Health Science in the Faculty of Health, told the press that using high-resolution brain imaging, they were able to measure which brain areas were active at given times during the experiment. And, she said, rather than just looking at brain activity, they also “tested how the skills learned from video game experience can transfer over to new tasks.”

A key result was finding that during the increasingly difficult tasks, the less-experienced video game players relied mostly on the parietal cortex (the brain area typically involved in hand-eye coordination), while the brain scans of the experienced gamers showed more activity in the prefrontal cortex at the front of the brain.

  • Playing video games for hours on end may not be that bad after all, wrote IndiaVision News Sept. 27. It could perhaps prepare your child to become a skilled surgeon one day.

Researchers at the Centre for Vision Research at York University in Canada compared a group of young men in their 20s, who had played video games at least four hours a week for the previous three years, to a group of young men without that experience, reports the journal Cortex.

The subjects were placed in a functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) machine and asked to complete a series of increasingly difficult visuomotor tasks, such as using a joystick or looking one way while reaching another way, said a York University release.

“By using high-resolution brain imaging (fMRI), we were able to actually measure which brain areas were activated at a given time during the experiment,” said Lauren Sergio, a professor in the Faculty of Health at York University. “We tested how the skills learned from video game experience can transfer over to new tasks, rather than just looking at brain activity while the subject plays a video game.”

  • Playing video games for hours on end may prepare your child to become a laparoscopic surgeon one day, a new study by York University researchers has shown, wrote South Africa’s Sept. 26.
  • Men and boys will be happy with the results of a study from researchers at the Centre for Vision Research at York University in Canada. It found that young men who played video games for at least four hours per week had better eye-hand coordination than those who did not play video games on a regular basis, wrote Sept. 26.

York opens new health science facility

It used to be a hockey arena. Now it houses the latest functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) technology, wrote the Canadian Jewish News Sept. 22.

Last week, York University officially opened the Sherman Health Science Research Centre, a facility for research in brain and vision, biomechanics, virtual reality and robotics. Planning for the facility, which was completed in December 2009, started in 2007.

The $11.5-million centre, which was converted from an old hockey arena, was named after Honey Sherman, a York University Foundation board member, and her husband, Barry Sherman, president and CEO of the  pharmaceutical company Apotex Inc., who donated $5 million to the project. “Everybody who gives donations has to pick and choose as to where the need is greatest,” Barry Sherman said.

“It’s York University, an important Canadian university for teaching and research…. We tend to concentrate our gifts towards health care. It’s good for the scientists, the public and the eventual patients who will benefit. It’s a gift to the City of Toronto.”

Sherman sees the facility’s potential for interdisciplinary research as an asset to the University. “It’s very impressive, and it makes a lot of sense. [These fields] are interrelated. To make significant progress in any area you need people of various [fields],” he said, adding that he was particularly impressed with the neuroimaging lab.

“To try to understand the workings of the brain, you need that equipment,” he said. “It’ll be very useful in developing that understanding when it comes to brain impairment and issues like dementia.”

Stan Shapson, York’s vice-president research & innovation, said the facility will provide an ideal work environment for both staff and graduate students. “We didn’t have these kinds of facilities for them yet, so they were doing great work, but you’re doing work in a lab that’s in the basement of a building. There’s potential for interference when you’re collecting data. It slows down your work and you’re always adjusting equipment,” Shapson said. “Now you have state-of-the-art labs…. [The students and researchers] will be able to do better quality work more quickly.”

Some of this research includes studying loss of vision in the elderly, developing a robot-guided wheelchair and building robots that can function underwater.

Shapson hopes the facility will help the University forge connections with local hospitals. “I think we had four presidents of regional hospitals at [the official opening]. That’s wonderful. They’re looking at this facility as something that could help them,” he said.

With the new facilities and York’s existing Centre for Vision Research, which is internationally renowned, Shapson sees the potential to attract new researchers and students, as well as to apply existing research to the health-care sector. “I think [this centre] is going to drive new ideas, innovations and treatments. At the end of the day, the hope is to deliver better health outcomes to Canadians,” he said.

York psychologist helps hockey players deal with being cut

This weekend, the proverbial axe will fall on up to 20 more Leafs players, part of the business of identifying the club’s NHL roster, wrote the Toronto Star Sept. 25. Twelve hopefuls experienced the disappointment Thursday – their dreams of NHL glory never got as far as one pre-season game.

“When a player is cut, the coach and the GM deliver the message and they always stress the positives,” former Leafs team psychologist Paul Dennis said. “But if a player isn’t listening, truly listening…and that can happen because they’re so distraught they miss the message and come out the victim. They feel sorry for themselves; they think they didn’t get played with the right players, the best players. They work so hard physically all summer, then they think they’re getting screwed. Some chose to look at it that way and they remain a victim. Others say thanks for the opportunity and I’ll work hard to get back…that’s what they (management) want to hear, believe me.”

Dennis has dealt with many players who have cried after being cut. It’s almost contradictory to the tough outer shell of the sport – a hockey player crying – but the impact of being cut attacks the emotions as much as it attacks the ego. “Yes, I’ve dealt with players (crying), and it’s tough, it’s very tough on them and it’s tough on me,” said Dennis, who lectures on sports psychology in York University’s Faculty of Health and at the University of Toronto.

“They can prepare physically all summer long but some of them don’t prepare enough mentally for moments like that (being cut). I’ve tried to remind them to…look at every practice and every game (in the minors) as a challenge and a thrill. That’s where I try to get them mentally.”

Race must be one-on-one to beat Ford

Pressure is building for the three trailing mayoral candidates to drop out of the race in order to stop Rob Ford, wrote the Toronto Star Sept. 25 in a story that suggested they should give way to George Smitherman, the second-place candidate in the polls.

Robert MacDermid, a political science professor in York University’s Faculty of Liberal Arts & Professional Studies, isn’t so sure. “Smitherman’s numbers have plummeted. And if Smitherman has another drop, I can see people saying it should be Ford versus Pantalone. I think votes would switch to Pantalone.”

“That said, if it was between Smitherman and Ford, there’s no question people on the left would have difficulty voting for Smitherman, but they might be pushed to do it.”

You don’t have to end up six-feet under

If space burial is the most bizarre thing you’ve ever heard of, stay tuned, wrote the Toronto Star Sept. 25. The posthumous options available to the regular Joe have grown in number in recent years, as people have become open to mourning in unique (and more commercial) ways.

Stephen Fleming, a psychology professor in York University’s Faculty of Health, says that as society changes, death rituals are changing, too. “We’re moving from a ritual that was largely based on religion to a ritual that is largely based on creativity or individual uniqueness,” Fleming says. At a funeral today you might see golf clubs decorating the corners of the casket, or digital photographs “flashing around”.

Fleming, however, is [also] a little bit skeptical. He says that if a creative ritual is meaningful to the deceased personif they plan it before their death, leave it in their will, and set aside moneythan that’s the important thing. But he worries about grieving families making these decisions for themselves. “They are extremely reluctant to let go of that sense of connectedness, that sense of being ‘in touch’ with people,” he says. “It’s that fervent wish that can get capitalized on.”

Are media creating a culture of rape?

 “I do think that young men and women get told in many ways that rape is normal, that it happens a lot and there’s no particular reason to fight it,” said Lee Lakeman, spokesperson for the Canadian Association of Sexual Assault Centres, in a column by the Toronto Star’s Antonia Zerbisias Sept. 26.

But York University psychology Professor Jennifer Connolly, who studies adolescent dating aggression [in York’s Faculty of Health and the LaMarsh Centre for Research on Violence & Conflict Resolution], disagrees. “Girls, I would argue, continue to be shocked and horrified by rape and sexual assault,” she says. “But the fact that a few groups of young men within a few subcultures are misogynist and behave badly is not surprising. I think one can look back at our culture and see that this has often been an attitude expressed by certain men.”

Despite the behaviour of, say, some jocks, frat boys and other testosterone-fuelled groups, Connolly insists that research indicates that most youth don’t tolerate aggression in relationships. That said, she adds, “The media play a role in romantic aggression. In our research we find that frequent use of violent media encourages youth to be very tolerant of aggression towards a romantic partner and then, by extension, to be more likely to get involved in relationships with aggression.”

York linguists helped writer write about bonobos

Novelist Sara Gruen spent three days at York University’s Glendon campus, meeting with linguists Jim Benson and Bill Greaves, wrote the Toronto Star Sept. 26 in a story about how she came to write Ape House, her book about bonobo apes. The two English professors had collected 400 hours of videos of these African apes, which are native to areas south of the Congo River.

“We gave her a sense of what it would be like when she got (to the trust),” said Greaves, who along with Benson had first learned about bonobos through a book called Apes, Language and the Human Mind. “Chimps are more aggressive animals, bonobos are peace-loving,” says Benson.

And bonobos engage in a lot of sex: group sex, same-sex coupling, and male and female sex. “They use sexual activity to relieve tension, and they do it with every gender and in every manner,” Benson says with a laugh.

Benson and Greaves showed Gruen how they are trying to parse bonobo language and introduced her to the 400-symbol lexigram board that allows bonobos to communicate by pointing to various symbols to create sentences.

“I tried very, very hard to learn the lexigram board, but I really didn’t get competent until I got in there to converse with the apes,” says Gruen.

  • In her review of Sara Gruen’s novel, Ape House (Sept. 5), Leah Hager Cohen disputes a description of a character’s simultaneous use of spoken English and American Sign Language, wrote James Benson and William Greaves, in a letter to The New York Times Sept. 26. This “quibble” is entirely irrelevant in relation to a novel and is something of a red herring.

The real-life bonobos at the Great Ape Trust in Iowa, who inspired Gruen’s fictional bonobos, don’t sign; they use an inventory of 384 symbols called lexigrams. Their caretakers can converse with the bonobos using both lexigrams and spoken English simultaneously. The more important point is that the real-life bonobos can communicate with humans at a much higher level than is generally recognized, and Gruen understands this. The real-life job, which is not Gruen’s, is providing evidence of this that is convincing to the scientific community.

The Times noted that the writers are emeritus professors at Glendon College, York University, and the authors of Functional Dimensions of Ape-Human Discourse.

  • In preparing for this novel, Gruen studied linguistics and a system of lexigrams at York University so she could communicate directly with bonobos living at the Great Ape Trust in Des Moines, Iowa, wrote reviewer Richard Helm in the Edmonton Journal Sept. 26. Her portrayal of the interplay between the Ape House bonobos is fairly convincing; it’s the human-to-human stuff that will have you snickering.

Schulich prof doubts wisdom of airline’s strategy

Etihad Airways’ head of network planning, Imed Ben Abdallah, said the carrier is pursuing a growth strategy “distinct” from Gulf rivals Emirates and Qatar Airways by focusing on developing point-to-point traffic to/from its Abu Dhabi base rather than pursuing broad based East-West transit traffic, wrote Air Transport World Sept. 24 in its online edition.

Others are not convinced, believing that three carriers in such close proximity, pursuing aggressive growth strategies could become problematic for one or more of them. “You’re not going to have three [top tier hub airports] in the Gulf,” said Fred Lazar, an economist from the Schulich School of Business at York University. Speaking at the World Route Development Forum in Vancouver, he commented that too many airports around the world “have grand illusions that they’ll be tier-one hubs.” He predicted the Middle East will have one or, at most, two major international hubs in the future.

Lions drop a laugher, run losing streak to 23

York University’s struggling football team experienced more growing pains Saturday, wrote the Toronto Star Sept. 26. But if you listen to head coach Warren Craney, some improvement has been notedjust not enough to win a game this season.

Craney, who hasn’t won in four starts since becoming York’s fourth head coach in five years, was actually smiling after watching the Wilfrid Laurier Golden Hawks hand his team its worst defeat of the year.

Physically bigger and looking like the talented Laurier team that won a Vanier Cup five years ago, the Golden Hawks crushed the Lions 68-14, extending York’s losing streak to 23 games.

“There is always hope,” Craney said. “I knew what I was getting into when I took the job. The kids are responding and one day we hope to be like (Laurier). We have to make our players believe in the larger picture and, unfortunately, it’s not this yearit’s 2011, 2012 and 2013. Programs like Laurier don’t get built overnight. I smile, but it’s killing me inside. It will take patience and bit by bit there are pockets of success.”

York’s problems increased when starting quarterback Nick Coutu left in the opening quarter with a hip injury and didn’t return. D.J. Frank filled in and went 15 of 40 for 138 yards with two interceptions and a TD pass to Jonelle Tolbert late in the first half. “We won’t lose confidence, we will learn and get betterit will turn around,” said Frank, whose team took 16 penalties for 151 yards and turned the ball over on fumbles three times.

On air

  • Gordon Roberts, a professor of finance in York’s Schulich School of Business, spoke about recent increases in Ontario Hydro rates, on CBC Radio Sept. 24.
  • Paul Delaney, professor of physics & astronomy in York’s Faculty of Science & Engineering, spoke about mechanical problems during the return flight of a Russian space capsule from the International Space Station, on CTV News Sept. 25.