visual processing abilities are by no means hardwired and fixed from
birth. There are limits, but the brain's nothing if
not plastic. With practice, the attentional mechanisms that sort and
edit visual information can be improved. One activity that requires
you to practice lots of the skills involved in visual attention is
playing video games.
effect does playing lots of video games have? Shawn Green and Daphne
Bavelier from the University of Rochester, New York, have researched
precisely this question; their results were published in the paper
"Action Video Game Modifies Visual
online at http://www.bcs.rochester.edu/people/daphne/visual.html#video.
the effects they looked at we've talked about
elsewhere in this book. The attentional blink [Hack #39] is that
half-second recovery time required to spot a second target in a
rapid-fire sequence. And subitizing is that
alternative to counting for very low numbers (4 and below), the
almost instantaneous mechanism we have for telling how many items we
can see [Hack #35].
Training can both increase the subitization limit and shorten the
attentional blink, meaning we're able to
simultaneously spot more of what we want to spot, and do it faster
Shortening the Attentional Blink
Comparing the attentional blink of people who have played video games
for 4 days a week over 6 months against people who have barely played
games at all finds that the games players have a shorter attentional
attentional blink comes about in trying to spot important items in a
fast-changing sequence of random items. Essentially,
it's a recovery time. Let's pretend
there's a video game in which, when someone pops up,
you have to figure out whether it's a good guy or a
bad guy and respond appropriately. Most of the characters that pop up
are good guys, it's happening as fast as you can
manage, and you're responding almost
automatically—then suddenly a bad one comes up. From working
automatically, suddenly the bad guy has to be lifted to conscious
awareness so you can dispatch him. What the attentional blink says is
that the action of raising to awareness creates a half-second gap
during which you're less likely to notice another
bad guy coming along.
Now obviously the attentional blink—this recovery time—is
going to have an impact on your score if the second of two bad guys
in quick succession is able to slip through your defenses and get a
shot in. That's a great incentive to somehow shorten
your recovery time and return from "shoot bad
guy" mode to "monitor for bad
guys" mode as soon as possible.
Raising the Cap on Subitizing
Subitizing—the measure of how many objects you can quantify
without having to count them—is a good way of gauging the
capacity of visual attention. Whereas counting requires looking at
each item individually and checking it off, subitizing takes in all
items simultaneously. It requires being able to give a number of
objects attention at the same time, and it's not
easy; that's why the maximum is usually about four,
although the exact cap measured in any particular experiment varies
slightly depending on the setup and experimenter.
Bavelier found the average maximum number of items their
non-game-playing subjects could subitize before they had to start
counting was 3.3. The number was significantly higher for games
players: an average of 4.9—nearly 50% more.
you can see the benefits of having a greater capacity for visual
attention if you're playing fast-moving video games.
You need to be able to keep on top of whatever's
happening on the screen, even when (especially when)
it's getting stretching.
How It Works
Given these differences in certain mental abilities between gamers
and nongamers, we might suspect the involvement of other factors.
Perhaps gamers are just people who have naturally higher attention
capacities (not attention as in concentration, remember, but the
ability to keep track of a larger number of objects on the screen)
and have gravitated toward video games.
No, this isn't the case. Green and
Bavelier's final experiment was to take two groups
of people and have them play video games for an hour each day for 10
The group that played the classic puzzle game Tetris had no
improvement on subitizing and no shortened attentional blink. Despite
the rapid motor control required and the spatial awareness implicit
in Tetris, playing the game didn't result in any
On the other hand, the group that played Medal of Honor: Allied
Assault (Electronic Arts, 2002), an intense first-person shooter,
could subitize to a higher number and recovered from the attentional
blink faster. They had trained and improved both their visual
attention capacity and processing time in only 10 days.
In Real Life
Bavelier's results are significant because processes
like subitizing [Hack #35] are
used continuously in the way we perceive the world. Even before
perception reaches conscious attention, our attention is flickering
about the world around us, assimilating information.
It's mundane, but when you look to see how many
potatoes are in the cupboard, you'll
"just know" if the quantity fits
under your subitization limit and have to count them—using
conscious awareness—if not.
the attentional blink, which is usually half a second (for the
elderly, this can double). A lot can happen in that time, especially
in this information-dense world: are we missing a friend walking by
on the street or cars on the road? These are the continuous
perceptions we have of the world, perceptions that guide our actions.
And the limits on these widely used abilities aren't
locked but are trainable by doing tasks that stretch those abilities:
fast-paced computer games.
I'm reminded of Douglas
Engelbart's classic paper
"Augmenting Human Intellect"2 on
his belief in the power of computers. He wrote this in 1962, way
before the PC, and argued that it's better to
improve and facilitate the tiny things we do every day rather than
attempt to replace entire human jobs with monolithic machines. A
novel-writing machine, if one were invented, just automates the
process of writing novels, and it's limited to
novels. But making a small improvement to a pencil, for example, has
a broad impact: any task that involves pencils is improved, whether
it's writing novels, newspapers, or sticky notes.
The broad improvement brought about by this hypothetical better
pencil is in our basic capabilities, not just in writing novels.
Engelbart's efforts were true to this: the computer
mouse (his invention) heightened our capability to work with
computers in a small, but pervasive,
is a like a pencil of conscious experience. Subitizing
isn't just responsible for our ability at a single
task (like novel writing), it's involved in our
capabilities across the board, whenever we have to apply visual
attention to more than a single item simultaneously. That we can
improve such a fundamental capability, even just a little, is
significant, especially since the way we make that improvement is by
playing first-person shooter video games. Building a better pencil is
a big deal.