Cynthia Whitehead is a word person. A lawyer who drafts environmental and
development legislation, the 60-year-old from Oakland, Calif. regularly taxes
her left hemisphere -- the side of the brain responsible in most people for
language and analysis. So when her stress level goes up, she turns to
Bejeweled, a computer game, for relief.
"I feel myself getting into a groove," she says. "My unconscious mind is
taking over and running with it. It feels like exercising a muscle that doesn't
get used enough.”
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That groove she's talking about may be an equalization of activity in the
two hemispheres of the brain. Each side tends to handle different functions,
but at their healthiest, their activity is balanced in a state known as
synchrony, according to Carmen Russoniello, PhD, professor of recreation and
leisure studies at East Carolina University in Greenville, N.C. He says
research shows that an imbalance in the strength of brain activity in either
hemisphere can result in depression. But as your brain moves into synchrony,
you feel more upbeat and energized.
Computer Games as Stress Relief
Russoniello conducted a six-month study on the effects of playing simple
computer games. The study, funded in part by a game company, shows the activity
can reduce stress, lift players' moods, and balance left- and right-brain
activity in the frontal cortex.
He found an increase in the brain's electrical activity that goes along with
a sunnier disposition, as well as a decrease in heart rate among
Surprised? We've all heard about the risks of computer games, from eyestrain
to addiction. But there's growing evidence that the right kind of game can
benefit both your mind and your body. Studies comparing avid video game players
to nongamers showed the players had sharper vision and the ability to switch
between mental tasks more rapidly.
Not every computer game will improve your mood and help you relax. So-called
casual computer games, which are easy to learn and require no special skills,
can provide the right balance of repetition and reward with just a few minutes
of play, Russoniello says. "These games draw you in because they're fun. One
reward helps push you toward the next one." As you play, he adds, your
breathing might slow and your blood pressure could fall, slightly decreasing
your core body temperature and making you feel sleepy.
Maybe this effect is why Whitehead likes to play after 10 p.m. "It can calm
me down," she says. "If I'm working too hard to do other things, I know
Bejeweled is there."