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.”
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 participants.
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."
Time to Try a Computer Game?
Take a 10-minute break to set both sides of your brain to happy. New to online diversions? Try these three:
Bubble Tanks: Floating bubbles, a soothing blue background, and hypnotic music help you drift away (free, games.yahoo.com).
Flowerz: Matching rows of colorful flowers brighten your day (free, games.msn.com).
Bejeweled Twist: This is the game that brought the brains of study participants into synchrony ($9.99, popcap.com).