The Brain on Tetris

You’re probably all too familiar with Tetris as a procrastination tool – but did you know about its far more reputable role in psychological research?

If you’ve ever played Tetris for a while, you may have noticed its lingering effects– such as daydreaming of objects in the room slotting together. If this sounds vaguely familiar, the diagnosis is (I kid you not): Tetris Syndrome.

That this is indeed a real phenomenon is backed by the fact that it makes a respectably lengthy appearance on Wikipedia. According to said source, it “occurs when people devote sufficient time and attention to an activity that it begins to overshadow their thoughts, mental images and dreams”.

Thus Tetris not only occupies your mind during the task itself, but seems to form a lasting impression on the brain. This has led to its use in psychology, helping to understand various aspects of how our brains work.

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Tetris and skill

For one, Tetris has helped shine some light on what happens in the brain when our skills develop. A study in 2009 showed that over the course of a month of playing Tetris, brain areas linked to playing the game gradually reduce their use of glucose (the brain’s natural fuel) while skill levels continuously improve. This means, despite our brains appearing less engaged, they’re doing a better job. The conclusion: greater skills come from a more energy efficient brain.

Tetris to prevent PTSD

That Tetris can help us understand skill acquisition isn’t too surprising….but what about its use as a treatment for post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD)? Researchers at Oxford University showed that volunteers who played Tetris after watching a truly traumatic video reported half as many flashbacks over the next few days than those who did a trivia quiz. The team’s explanation is that the high cognitive demands of Tetris prevent the traumatic memory from ‘settling in’. As it takes around 6 hours for memories to enter a more long-term state, this treatment has a very limited time-window to work. It essential means we’d need Tetris arcades set up in warzones – seems somewhat questionable if you ask me.

The Tetris diet?

Ok so, maybe Tetris isn’t the thing to play during exam-time then. But maybe it’s worth a go when you’re feeling a bit peckish. It turns out Tetris has the potential to reduce cravings. A group of individuals who were asked about their cravings where split into two: one who played Tetris and one who got to stare at the loading screen (heartless, I know). The players got over their cravings whereas the control group didn’t. Tetris: the new diet? The media definitely took it that way.

 

Dreams of Tetris

Tetris has also been moonlighting in sleep research. A curious study from Harvard University investigated what happens to the dozing brain after playing Tetris for a ridiculously long period of time. In addition to the usual healthy average Joes and Janes, the study included a few amnesics, as well as a selection of “Tetris experts” (there’s actually a global ranking system for Tetris professionals).

 

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Across three days the ‘experimentees’ played a total 7 hours of Tetris and were asked to describe what they saw when drifting off to sleep each night. “Tetris experts” could hear music (the famous Russian Tetris theme Korobeniki) and see colours from versions they’d played years before; while the amnesics were pretty confused as they didn’t have a clue what Tetris was, nor why some strange person in a lab coat was sitting in their bedroom. Yet even they described geometric shapes falling from the sky and slotting into spaces.

Besides showing that amnesics actually can form visual memories, this study seems to suggest that our daydreams and dozing thoughts are serving a purpose, a kind of subconscious training and integration of old and newly learnt abilities perhaps.

So, far from being just some trivial game that you cannot actually ever win (think about it…), its power to occupy and sway the mind has actually made Tetris an extremely fascinating research tool.

 

Post by: Isabel Hutchison

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