ALARMED, NOT ALERT

Pokémon Go could improve brain health, but you’re too distracted to let it

Instead of passively sitting in front of a screen, Pokémon Go has inspired us to beat the streets, log miles through the urban terrain, set records with our Fitbits, and generally applaud ourselves for the massive collective outburst of healthy activity. But are we really getting the full mental benefits of a leisurely stroll?

Walking, regardless of if it’s on a treadmill or a trail in the woods, is good for us. Sitting is the new smoking, so in this sense, there’s no question that playing Pokémon Go is healthier than being slumped in front of an Xbox playing a console game (provided you avoid walking into traffic or being lured by criminals).

The harder question to answer is whether the kind of walking we do while collecting creatures is psychologically healthy. In spite of some of the glowing accounts of the app’s ability to encourage “exploration,” we are not likely garnering the same emotional and physiological benefits as we would on a technology-less walk. Beyond the positive effects of exercise, there are many other benefits we gain from strolling through the streets—but we often can’t access them when we’re avidly chasing virtual creatures through a 3-by-6 inch screen.

In the Urban Realities Laboratory at the University of Waterloo in Canada, my team and I study the relationship between the design of city streets and the healthy operation of the human mind. In many of our experiments, we connect participants to a suite of sensors that measure their arousal levels, brain state, eye movements, and heart rate, and then we take them for walks through the streets of a city. In experiments conducted in many major cities, including New York, Berlin, Mumbai, and Toronto, certain truths have emerged.

When people walk through lively urban streetscapes with lots of activity and interesting facades, their moods and physiology both soar. And when people get off the pavement and into urban gardens or parks, their behaviors shift dramatically yet again: They relax, become quietly attentive of their surroundings, and feel happy and comfortable. An enormous body of research collected over the past few decades has shown that such settings lower heart rate and blood pressure, and they also reverse the “cognitive depletion” generated when we work at taxing, attention-demanding tasks for long periods of time.

In other brain-imaging experiments, exposure to pleasant scenes of both natural and built environments causes an increase in activity in an area of the brain called the parahippocampal gyrus, which is an important region involved in processing complex environmental scenes. This area also contains large numbers of opiate receptors, which suggests that viewing pleasant scenes may be as strongly reinforcing for us as other kinds of motivators, such as food and sex.

But just being in a beautiful place is not enough: You have to pay attention to it.

In most of our experiments at the Urban Realities Laboratory, we lead people on a set of carefully curated destinations designed to measure the effects of certain kinds of contrasts—the amount of sky that is visible from the street, the amount of traffic chaos in the near vicinity, or the quality of landscape architecture, for instance. The positive patterns seen in our experiments most likely mirror what happens in the brain of an untethered, free-spirited wanderer.

But when we walk in a state of detachment, lost in thought—whether that’s focusing on our inner lives or perhaps looking for Pokémon on our phones—the linkages between our surroundings and our nervous systems are lost. As one kind of evidence for this, neuroscientific studies have shown that an overreliance on GPS for routine wayfinding tasks may actually cause atrophy of brain areas involved in the formation of cognitive maps.

Similarly, in our laboratory, we have found that study participants prone to bouts of mind-wandering were more likely to become lost and disoriented while traversing a virtual maze. Abundant anthropological evidence also suggests that cultures known for exquisitely tuned senses of place and direction (Puluwatese marine navigators or the Inuit, for example) have accomplished their extraordinary feats of navigation largely by paying careful attention to their surroundings.

But players of Pokémon Go aren’t actively taking in the sights and sounds of what is around them as they wander: They’re focusing on the screens of their phones. Their engagement with the game is probably causing patterns of brain activation that are not very different from those experienced by players of first-person shooters. With those types of games, there is increased activation of a part of the brain called the caudate nucleus: This is a part of the same brain system that is strongly invoked during GPS-guided navigation (in which we focus mainly on the “blue dot” rather than on our surroundings).

And that’s worrisome. The strong activation of this system may also occur at the expense of activation of the hippocampus, which is the brain system that helps us to map and understand our relationships with places. There’s even some evidence that this kind of caudate hyperactivation and its consequent dampening of hippocampal activation may lead to a variety of ill effects, including psychiatric disorders, Alzheimer’s disease, learning disabilities, and even increased vulnerability to addiction.

It’s not fun to rain on a parade, especially one as curious and extraordinary as the Pokémon Go phenomenon. And it’s certainly worth applauding one of the main benefits of the game: its encouragement for us to get off of our behinds and get some exercise.

But let’s not kid ourselves that Pokémon Go players are really learning very much about the world, enriching their minds, or finding their place. For anyone wanting that kind of experience, the methodology is much simpler: Go outside. Take a wander. Look around.

Your brain will thank you for it, no phone required.

You can follow Colin on Twitter at @WhereAmINow. We welcome your comments at ideas@qz.com.

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