Why Dumb Toys Make Kids Smarter

We didn’t want our son to have Pokémon cards—until they began turning him into a human computer. NurtureShock author Po Bronson on games that increase children’s brain power 100-fold.

Yvonne Hemsey / Getty Images

We didn’t want our son to have Pokémon cards—until they began turning him into a human computer. NurtureShock author and Newsweek blogger Po Bronson on games that increase children’s brain power 100-fold.

This is a story about the science of kids’ brains. But before we get into things like how dopamine enhances neural signaling, let’s talk about Pokémon.

Early in our son’s life, my wife let it be known that she didn’t have many clear-cut rules about how we’d raise him. To her, the world of parenting was not to be artificially cleaved into what’s Good for Kids and what’s Bad for Kids. However, she felt the need to warn me of two exceptions: violent videogames and Pokémon cards.

“We are not going to let him do those,” she stated firmly.

Pokémon had taken over his brain. But in ways my wife never expected.

The violent videogames I understood. Pokémon, I did not—I wasn’t really aware what Pokémon cards were. But while babysitting during graduate school, my wife had seen young kids become crazily obsessed with the cards, to the point where the preoccupation seemed to take over their young lives. “It eclipses their interest in other things,” she said. “And it’s the earliest form of status trap, too. Their sense of self-worth becomes tied up in what cards they possess. They get feelings of superiority merely by owning an Infernape card.”

Not knowing what an Infernape card was, I readily accepted my wife’s declaration. She made a child’s fixation on Pokémon cards sound like a heroin addiction.

But then, the summer my son was 5, we traveled to Seattle to visit his cousins. Several of these cousins, a little older than he was, were into Pokémon cards. My son wanted, more than anything, to merely belong. Sensing this, we decided not to object when his cousins gifted him a dozen low-level cards—a few Pikachus, and something cute that looked like a baby turtle.

At the end of the summer, the cards were stashed away. It wasn’t until the next summer vacation, again with his cousins, that Pokémon began to take over our son’s mind. His cousins fed him a supply of cards, and at first, he was again motivated principally by a desire to fit in. But then we noticed a few other things. He could go upstairs with his cousins to look over the cards and then pretend to be Pokémon characters for two solid hours—even though there was almost nothing else he could do, without distraction, for more than 20 minutes. Pokémon didn’t seem so much an addiction as good-natured absorption—genuine, intrinsically oriented self-direction. We also realized the cards were teaching him category systems and math.

That following school year, in his first-grade class, Pokémon became social currency. About half his class was entranced by the cards. At times it seemed ridiculous, but then I’d hear my son plop down two cards and talk out more complicated math problems than anything he saw at school: “160HP minus 110HP plus 30 resistance points minus 20 weakness points equals 60 points left,” he’d say, then plop down two more cards to solve.

I didn’t know then what I know now: Through this repetition, his brain was transforming. Heavily used neurons were learning to fire together, and these chains of neurons were becoming myelinated in thin sheaths of fat; by this process, “gray matter” is converted into “white matter.” The sheath surrounding the nerves acts as an electrical insulator, increasing neural speed by 100-fold. Active repetition also began tuning up the nerve capsules that connected his prefrontal cortex to his parietal cortex in the back of the brain. When these superhighways of nerve tissue come on board, the brain learns to delegate math to the back of the brain, making computation speed radically faster.

While we weren’t aware of the neuroscience, it was plainly obvious: Pokémon cards were making our son’s brain really fast at elementary-school math. I began to buy him cards. Lots of cards.

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The second half of first grade, our son started reading the fine-print paragraphs on the cards. He got more reading time in through his love of Pokémon than he ever did at night, when we handed him books. He did read the books out loud to us, but it was a necessary chore. Pokémon was never a chore. And I noticed the paragraphs on the cards were syntactically far more complicated than anything he read in books. Soon, the same brain transformation that drove his math speed was reproduced with his reading speed.

Pokémon had taken over his brain. But in ways my wife never expected. Early in second grade, his math teacher told us he was as fast at math as the fifth graders. Not bad for a kid turned away by most of the local private schools prior to kindergarten.

Something else happened early in second grade. One afternoon, while watching the Phillies march to their World Series title, my wife taught our son how to read a box score—how math and symbols represented the game’s progress. Within a two-month span, our son lost every last drop of his interest in Pokémon, and he fell in love with sports. Hand him Harry Potter today, and it’ll take him an hour to read 10 pages. Hand him a youth-biography of David Beckham, and he’ll read all 120 pages in a single sitting. That’s just who he is.

Our son taught me an extremely valuable lesson. When it comes to kids, we often bring moralistic bias to their interests. There’s a pervasive tendency in our society to label things as either good for children or bad for children. Cultivating children’s natural intrinsic motivation requires abandoning all judgment of good and bad content. Society has a long list of subjects that we’ve determined they should learn. But learning itself is kick-started when enmeshed and inseparable from what a child inherently loves. How many parents are ignoring this, pushing flash cards and phonics cards onto their kids, attempting to trigger learning in an amotivational situation?

My previous book, What Should I Do With My Life?, was a portrait of a generation that had spent the first two decades of life ignoring their intrinsic motivations. They were bright and talented, but had spent so many years doing what was expected of them, and studying what society told them they should study, that they were no longer in touch with their natural desires. They’d been praised endlessly, told they were smart, and had no internal compass when it came to making career decisions. Learning to recognize their own passions was incredibly difficult and stunted. It had been drilled out of them as children.

It’s important to underscore that this isn’t a philosophical argument—it’s a neurological argument. Motivation is experienced in the brain as the release of dopamine. It’s not released like other neurotransmitters into the synapses; instead, it’s sort of spritzed into large areas of the brain, which enhances the signaling of neurons. The motivated brain, literally, operates better, signals faster. Kids learn better.

How exactly does this happen? According to Dr. Silvia Bunge, a neuroscientist at U.C. Berkeley, the presence of dopamine triggers a meaningful tweak in the tuning function of brain cells. Dopamine depolarizes neurons and improves their firing rate; their response to optimal stimuli becomes sharper, and the background buzz of relevant stimuli is quieted a little.

In other words, each neuron operates sort of like a motivated child: It becomes focused, less distractable, and when it does something right, it recognizes that in the moment—it hangs on to that information, ready to use it again.

In my son’s case, it was Pokémon that triggered the spritz of dopamine, which enabled him to learn so much from the cards. Now it’s sports that triggers the spritz. I suppose someday he will fall in love with other things, too, and because he’s loved passionately before, he’ll know what it feels like to love—he’ll recognize the feeling of passion: His brain is turned on, turbocharged.

My daughter, meanwhile—just 5—is into princesses and Supergirl. I’m no fool. I’m rolling with it.

Now if Disney would only start printing Princess trading cards.

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