A study claiming that playing videogames can result in misperceptions and visual distortions of real-life objects and environments was just released. The researchers likened these distortions to pseudo-hallucinatory experiences. Does the claim have any merit?
The short answer is, only sort of. For one thing, the researchers gathered their research from forum posts where gamers referenced, for instance, seeing arrows when they closed their eyes after playing Dance Dance Revolution. This is self-reported data, which is always subject to some question. The researchers admitted that the evidence was anecdotal, and that more research needed to be done before any conclusions about gaming transferring to real life were made.
Secondly, this isn’t a phenomenon that happens only with gaming—any time you engage with something for a long period of time, you’ll “see” it afterward. When I was a kid, we experienced a caterpillar invasion. I saw caterpillars for hours after we left the invasion area—behind my eyelids, in my sleep, and out of the corner of my eyes. Do caterpillars cause hallucinations? (Unlikely, unless you consume poisonous ones!)
Others in the comment thread on Polygon noted that they experienced a similar effect from:
a. grading exams
b. handling Fed-ex boxes
b. memorizing numbers
d. going to music concerts
Psuedo-hallucinations are distinguishable from real hallucinations in that the people experiencing them don’t believe that they are real. Our worry is that most folks—especially media outlets—won’t make that important distinction. (There is also a huge difference between pseudo-hallucinations and parahullucinations, which indicate a damage to the nervous system.)
These researchers seem to be implying that videogames are unique in their ability to cause pseudo-hallucinations, and that’s the main problem with the study. It isn’t videogames that cause these visual distortions, it’s intense focus and engagement—no matter what we’re doing. This is well documented, both anecdotally and in published science. Visual priming, an unconscious process that allows us to quickly recognize objects we’ve seen before, is at the root of it, and we use it all the time.
We want to warn parents against taking this study—and particularly subsequent news reports on it—too seriously. This isn’t to say that the research is invalid, but rather that the results are less exciting than headlines may imply.