Always stunk at video games? Perhaps you've been cursed with a small striatum, a region of the brain involved in learning and memory. Researchers have found that college students with relatively large striatums learned how to play a challenging video game faster than their small-striatum peers. Large-striatum individuals were also better at shifting priorities from, say, shooting a target to outrunning an enemy–abilities that could translate to the real world.
The game isn't exactly Halo or Assassin's Creed. Instead, Space Fortress looks a lot like the very first arcade games, with geometric shapes subbing for spaceships and buildings. “The graphics stink,” admits Arthur Kramer, a psychologist at the University of Illinois, Urbana-Champaign, who designed the game in the early 1980s. Gameplay is fairly complex, however: Players must shoot down a fortress with their ship while avoiding enemies, the bad guys look a lot like the good guys, and the ship has no brakes. Over the years, researchers have used the game to study memory, motor control, and learning speed. The U.S. Air Force and the Israeli air force have even changed their training regimens based on how cadets fared as players. Recent studies have suggested that players appear to heavily utilize their striatum during gameplay. So Kramer and Kirk Erickson, a psychologist at the University of Pittsburgh in Pennsylvania, decided to investigate whether the size of the striatum alone might be responsible for these abilities.