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The Neuroscience of Tetris

[ 64 ] June 3, 2011 |

Think of all the puzzle games you’ve ever played. Which has forced you to make visuospatial connections at a rate faster than your brain can normally process them? Can you think of one that combines subtle geometric nuances with coordination of the eyes and fingers to create visual harmony? How about a game where you must cyclically build and destroy structures using randomized building blocks? Tetris is one of the most ubiquitous electronic games of all time, probably because it hides this beautiful complexity behind the faceof seven simple falling blocks, the infamous Tetriminoes.

When Alexey Pajitnov developed Tetris in the ‘80s it was an instant hit. People all over the world crammed around Nintendo Entertainment System (NES) consoles to play with the falling blocks and score points, and now the game has sold over 100,000 million copies worldwide. Today Tetris has developed into something of an online sport, spawning hundreds of yearly tournaments and even a global ranking system. The game is available on almost any platform you can think of and, at the very least, there will always be a person in a crowd who can hum the game’s famous Russian tune, “Korobeniki.” It’s probably safe to say that Tetris is here to stay for a very long time.

Yet what’s most fascinating about this game aren’t the statistics behind its virality. As anyone with an online PhD knows, human-computer interaction is an important part of the learning process that relies on fragile brain-machine interfacing. People break learning curves by activating multiple senses to overcome extreme knowledge barriers, and until very recently scientists had only speculated that playing Tetris relied on this type interfacing in a way that few other systems do. And in 2009, research was published in the open access journal BioMed Central Research Notes that changed the way people think about Tetris.

Gray matter is an amalgam of neuronal cells that is distributed throughout the central nervous system. It is involved in things like memory and sensory applications, and is remarkable in that it has demonstrated plasticity– the ability to shrink and thicken in response to repetitive external stimuli. As young children learn new information their gray matter develops accordingly. Yet when humans reach old age, it is generally believed that cognitive capacity decreases until death. Gray matter’s plasticity, however, allows even the adult brain to continue growing. In all simplicity, Tetris has been found to act upon this flexibility of brain matter by actually thickening it, thereby strengthening neural networks and the webs they control.

The BMC study used a MRI to scan the brains of subjects who practiced Tetris for 30 minutes a day. They compared these images to the MRIs of people who had not practiced Tetris at all. In the experimental group, the researchers found that the subjects’ gray matter had thickened, leading them to believe that the game is responsible for physical cognitive development that should (in theory) also improve things like memory capacity. In effect, playing Tetris allows your brain to operate more efficiently. But how?

Just like any motor, the brain needs fuel to work properly and consistently. Sugars like glucose provide this fuel.  A prevailing theory known as the Tetris Effect states that when a person initially starts to play Tetris, their brain consumes a huge amount of glucose in order to solve its fast-paced puzzles. Through consistent and limited daily practice, the brain begins to consume less glucose to perform just as well, if not better, at Tetris. After a few months the brain becomes so efficient at playing the game that it requires only a very small amount of fuel to perform the game’s rapid puzzle work. What this shows is that the brain actually learns how to solve Tetris conundrums with energy efficiency while it improves performance on the same tasks that once required loads of glucose. This is a prime example of brain efficiency– still a mysterious concept to researchers.

The BMC study appears to actually link gray matter plasticity to brain efficiency, but no substantial research making these claims has been published at this time. At the bare minimum, it is probably safe to assume that Tetris affects the brain in a way that is healthy and even beneficial to learning. So why not exercise that gray matter and give your brain a boost? You might find Tetris difficult at first, but it grows on you. Better yet, it’ll grow your noggin, too!

Jeremy Fordham is a contributing writer for Online PhD Programs. He is an engineer who hopes to inspire dialogue in unique niches by addressing topics at the intersection of many disciplines.

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