Dr. Universe,

My mom says video games and too much TV rot my brain. What does that mean? How does that happen? Does my brain turn to slime?

— Tree Family Kids, 3, 5, 7, Dundee, Mich.

Dear Tree Family,

If you play video games or watch too much television, you don’t have to worry about your brain actually turning to slime. But it is true that some video games and television shows can take away some of your energy without giving you much in return.

When we are not being active with our bodies, too much screen time can wear us down. It not only wears down the brain, but also the body. And at the same time, some video games and stories can often help us learn better.

That’s what I found out from my friend Jonah Firestone, a researcher at Washington State University who knows a lot about virtual reality, video games and learning.

In his lab, he’s studied how kids learn when they get to experience a virtual reality, such as an environment like the ocean. They put on goggles and are transported to a computer-generated and three-dimensional scene of life in the sea. If they try to touch the animals in the ocean, the animals might swim away if the person gets too close.

As you might imagine, these types of interactive, virtual worlds are a much different way to learn than reading or writing about the ocean. Firestone told me that different parts of the brain fire up when we learn in different ways. We can learn through things like writing, reading or experiencing something in person.

When you have a full-body learning experience with virtual reality, the brain is much more active than if you just listen to something or copy it down on paper.

If you are anything like me, you might really enjoy playing video games or watching television. It might be relaxing and fun. If you are interested in either one, you might even try developing a storyline or creating a game of your own.

Firestone said that there are a lot of easy ways to make videos with smart phones. You might even use Legos to make stop-motion videos. Apps like Scratch also make it possible to make games and tell stories on a computer.

When your mom says “rot,” she might be thinking about a few different things that can cause the brain and body to wear down. A bright screen can sometimes mess with the body’s sleep signals, which can throw off our sleep schedules. Too much screen time might make your eyes or body tired. You can help counteract this and get more energy by doing some stretches, jumping jacks and moving around. Or by going outside and playing.

“Balance it out with doing something different — something active,” Firestone said. “If you can move around, be artistic, engage your imagination, be creative or read, you can counteract this supposed ‘rot.’ ”

While there are some ways a brain can literally rot or turn to slime, watching video games or television isn’t one of them. But I suppose that’s a question for another time. In the meantime, you might try making some slime of your own.


Have a science question? Ask Dr. Wendy Sue Universe, WSU’s resident science cat and writer, by email at Dr.Universe@wsu.edu, on her website at askDrUniverse.wsu.edu, via Twitter at @AskDrUniverse or at facebook.com/AskDrUniverse.

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