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How Pokemon Changed The Way We
Understand The Human Brain

The Brief:

  • Study lead by brain wizards: Jesse Gomez, Michael Barnett, and Kalanit Grill-Spector.
  • 22 participants – 11 Pokemon experts, 11 normies.
  • Each self-declared Pokemon master took a quiz on their Kanto knowledge.
  • Each participant was placed in an MRI (Magnetic Resonance Imaging booth) and shown 8 categories of images at a quick rate.
  • The image categories were: Animals, Faces, Cartoons, Corridors (location), Bodies, Words, Cars, and Pokemon.
  • Each round, participants were shown a randomly selected image from all categories. All Pokemon selected were from the original 151.
Left: A chart showing how often participants guessed a Pokemon correctly. Blue line indicates participants who knew Pokemon, Grey line represents amateurs. Right: Sample images of items requested to answer.

Q: Does Pokemon Recognition Utilize A Part of the Brain Otherwise Unused?

A: No. This is misleading information. I’ve heard some “facts” quoted from many YouTube videos along the lines of “now we have a region of our brain dedicated to Pokemon” but it feels like our problem is awkward presentation from existing articles. 

As a result, I’ll be handling this information in a Q&A format to make the content more digestible while not withholding the root science of the study from you.

Q: Then What Actually Happened in the Pokemon Brain Study?

A: Participants who were exposed to Pokemon as children reacted through a uniform channel of brain activity. Jesse and his crew expected this. 

But something big happened. 

The results contradicted information that was previously thought true about these brain channels.

Q: If That’s True, Then Why Is The Pokemon Study So Important?

A: One of the most difficult obstacles to overcome when processing information like this is the number of variables at play.

When a person is storing and registering information, they may have come into contact with it up close or far away, they may have learned about it from in-person encounters or on television.

In the case of Pokemon, everyone has had a relatively unified experience learning about them. In the study, each participant learned about Pokemon from their Game Boy, grappled at an arm’s length away from their face, witnessed in black and white.

More importantly, the other group did not play Pokemon as kids. The Pokemon franchise is popular enough that the second group could still recognize the little creatures. Still, those participants were largely unaware of Pokemon traits or characteristics. 

This presented an opportunity to witness the key impacts childhood interest held on our brain activity many years later.

Q: In What Part of the Brain Are Pokemon Stored?

A: Remember in grade school when you learned about left brain vs. right brain? Well, we’re studying the creative half. 

The right brain houses the ventral temporal cortex. That’s neurological jargon for the area that responds to visual recognition.

Within that section of the brain are four channels: 

  1. The Occipitotemporal Sulcus (OTS)
  2. The Lateral Fusiform Gyrus ( Lat. FG)
  3. The Temporal Fusiform Gyrus (Temp. FG)
  4. The Collateral Sulcus (CoS)

Things that we learn to categorize as children (such as faces and places) show uniform activity across these channels despite having extreme visual differences.

I want you to picture it like a green light flashes across one of those four channels when you see a picture of something.

Pokemon recognition is no different. We see robust activity in the Occipitotemporal Sulcus with some small overlap in the lateral FG region. Ding! Green light flashes on channel one.

Q: What Makes Pokemon Recognition So Groundbreaking?

A: Neurologists believed we could identify which channel would activate depending on how much the image shown would move in real-life.

From list item 1 (most animate object) to 4 (least animate object)

For example, the corridors shown in the study formed concrete correlations with activity in the collateral sulcus. Corridors are large and exceptionally stationary. Ding! Green light flashes in channel 4.

Meanwhile, images of faces revealed activity in the Lateral FG region. Faces are small and animate. Ding! Green light flashes in channel 2.

Nothing out of the ordinary.

Section A shows sample brain activity for a normie, section B shows sample brain activity for Gary Oak.

The participants expressed that they imagined faces to be more animate than Pokemon, but their cranial activity broke the charts. 

Remember what I said earlier? When shown images of Pokemon, the Occipitotemporal Sulcus activated. Ding! Green light flashes in channel 1.

This information proved a theory referred to as the retinal eccentricity bias. In English, this means that the way you view something impacts the way you think of it. 

Peripheral vision was the determining factor of corridors appearing in channel 4. It had nothing to do with being inanimate at all. Peripheral vision is notably less accurate than staring directly at something.

Along the same vein, everyone who recognized Pokemon from childhood witnessed these creatures point-blank on Game Boy screens. They viewed Pokemon with the sharpest area of the eye’s retina – the fovea.

Q: What Happened to the Group Exposed to Pokemon Much Later in LIfe?

A: Studies traced very little brain activity at all when shown photos of Pokemon. No lights.

This group responded similarly in all other categories. 

There was an interesting side note that might pop up in future studies. The group exposed to Pokemon as children revealed a higher rate of interest when shown pictures of faces. The rates of interest were nearly identical in all other categories.

Q: So Why Are YouTubers And Journalists Stating That We Store Pokemon In An Unused Segment of the Brain?

We saw a universal reaction in the OCT channel. None of the other objects studied in the experiment activated the same brain channel. Couple that with the fact that the study report is a VERY difficult read, and it seems like a logical take away if browsed lightly or otherwise glossed over.

Fret not! Your brain still functions spectacularly.

Q: What Other Items Activate The Occipitotemporal Sulcus?

See for yourself, if you can stomach it. Like I said before, it’s a bit difficult to find uniform answers because the human story varies from person to person.

Q: What Can Neurologists Do With The Information From This Study?

A: This study provided humane statistics for understanding brain activity in anyone harboring mental or cultural disabilities. It’s harmless for a kid to lack exposure to Pokemon, since they’re fictional creatures. It sounds like a mundane childhood, though! I guarantee each kid has their own epic tale to share, similar to mine.

What if a child hadn’t been exposed to something crucial until later in life? That’s the cardinal question to take home. 

Want examples? Those with dyslexia struggle to stimulate their fusiform gyri. People who hallucinate faces suffer from overstimulation.

A2: We also learned that advanced visual development is still prominent in a child’s later growth stages (ages 5-7). Visual development is known to start forming while the child is in utero, so understanding we can develop and build impressions much later in life is pretty big news. 

Of course, the participants who learned about Pokemon later in life missed the window of opportunity to get that strong mental reaction shown by the others, so it may be interesting to find where exactly that cut-off date lies.

A3: We also have more evidence to support this age range as the most proficient period to teach children to read and write, as those skills are harnessed in much the same way as learning a Pokemon’s face from a game screen.

Extra Credit: Isn’t It Still A Little Terrifying That We Have Access to This Information?

Yes. Yes, it is. 

There is a reason H.P. Lovecraft had such an obsession with the idea of forbidden knowledge. I don’t necessarily believe that this information will result in the incantation to summon Cthulhu, but it is still a bit unsettling. 

Who would have thought? Our beloved video games gave birth to a key element of our brains’ core creative processing systems. It’ll happen again, too. I don’t remember signing anything about THAT in any of my End-User Licensing Agreements!

(...Not that I’ve read them too carefully, to begin with.)

The human brain has always fascinated me, but I undoubtedly feel a little guilty for learning such concise details about it.

Also, there’s the looming concern that a product designed purely for commercial reasons had such a profound impact on its audience.

Ken Sugimori himself is an innocent artist who meticulously re-designed some imaginary creatures until they became distinguishable far beyond his expectations. He’s a master of his craft! 

Our heroes at Nintendo only seem interested in making money off of creating fulfilling experiences for their consumers. Although I can’t picture the snake oil salesman down the road to be quite as transparent.

The good news is, while the people we encounter on a day to day basis may be snotty and rude, they aren’t inherently evil. A lot of progressive science may be here to help guide the generations ahead of us. So, it’s best to remain hopeful rather than cynical.

So, on that note:

Cheers to Pokemon – The franchise that won the hearts of an entire generation! The franchise that gave us the most unexpected insight on developmental learning.

My question to you: What on Earth do you think accounted for the heightened facial recognition stimulus of the Pokefans? Now THAT seems like it needs an explanation.

Welcome to the rabbit hole.