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The Neuroscience of Tetris

[ 29 ] 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.

Comments (29)

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  1. Lynn says:

    In 1989 I suffered a traumatic brain injury in a car accident. At the time I started playing Tetris on my daughter’s device and it felt like an addiction. I feel that it helped me tremendously. I had not been able to find my own clothes in my own room, or remember the route to her school (she was in the 4th grade). My pre-injury self would have considered the game a time-waster, but my post injury self now sees it as a life-saver. My brain continues to recover and I swear Tetris helped retrain those neurons.

  2. Danny says:

    Lynn, if you’re reading this, my name is Danny and I work for Blue Planet Software, the agent for The Tetris Company. We’d love to give you a free copy of Tetris Zone (http://zone.tetris.com). Please call our office at 808.954.6100 and ask for Danny. Hope to hear from you!

  3. Carys says:

    What a cool article and study.

    I had a tbi in 1997. I had significant memory loss, trouble focussing, confusion, and terrible problems sorting out and dealing with incoming stimuli (around here we still refer to that state as my “keyboard buffer being full”).

    Like Lynn I found Tetris incredibly addictive post accident. There were days I played it for literally 6-8 hours and hated to stop. I also played a game called ThinkFast that was recced on a tbi support site, but it’s not the sort of thing one can play for hours at a time; at least not me…

    Most of my memory has come back, and every year there’s significant improvement over the previous year.

    Lynn, you’re the first other person I’ve ever seen mention feeling addicted to Tetris post-tbi. Thank you!

    And thank you Jeremy Fordham, as well.

  4. Tim says:

    I was hit by a car as a pedestrian and my head cracked the cars windshield and broke my leg.
    Tetris did help me get past the down time,
    but I was addicted to tetris already before the accident. I also have adult ADD and if I play tetris in the morning with my cup of joe, I tend to focus better at work and not daydream or loose focus later on in the day. On one last note, even if tetris was not good for the brain, it is still darn fun to play multiplayer tetris against your friends or online. There is now Tetris battle on facebook, but tetrisfriends.com is still better and tetris online Japan is still the best.

    Cheers and happy focus training!

  5. Marina says:

    Весьма..

  6. Steven Barisof says:

    Why isn’t this offered to veteran’s returning from active duty with TBI? The military should buy and give free copies to these vets. Just a thought.

  7. [...] The Neuroscience of Tetris (thebeautifulbrain.com) [...]

  8. [...] “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.” [source] [...]

  9. Brain S. says:

    There really is some gravity behind the idea that playing a game such as Tetris, or other similar games, is like a problem-solving spatial workout for the brain. Regardless of whether there is actual scientific research supporting the specific claim that Tetris in particular fosters neuro-cellular plasticity, the underlying thrust of the notion that brain efficiency is highly malleable, and remains so well into advanced age, is critically important.

    Today, the population as a whole is living longer than ever. From a medical standpoint, MRI brain scans don’t really reveal much about cognitive functionality, however utilizing the output as an observational tool helps revise some previously held outdated popular assumptions that advanced age automatically equates to decreased mental capacity. The brain remains just as malleable in later years as in developmental years. This has been proven time and again both with and without MRI data as support. Cognitive plasticity, i.e. learning, takes place every day of one’s life, and increased brain efficiency is an evidentiary outcome of concerted practice. Whether it’s playing Tetris, playing cards, or conversing with family and friends, honing an active and positive mental outlook can yield countless long-term neurological health benefits.

    Excellent post, as well as citations. Thanks for sharing.

  10. [...] have been more words written about Tetris than one could shake a stick at. Tetris can change the shape of your brain and make it more efficient. It can even be used to help treat [...]

  11. Ross says:

    I was walking along the city street the other day – when a line of 4 light blue boxes fell from an office window and landed on my head.

    I tried playing tetris to alleviate the brain injury but somehow never felt completely relaxed about it.

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    The Neuroscience of Tetris : The Beautiful Brain

  16. This is the first time I have heard about the Tetris Effect. Great article.

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  18. […] less glucose to fuel the problem solving Tetris relentlessly demands. As Jeremy Fordham states in The Neuroscience of Tetris, “What this shows is that the brain actually learns how to solve Tetris conundrums with […]

  19. […] less glucose to fuel the problem solving Tetris relentlessly demands. As Jeremy Fordham states in The Neuroscience of Tetris, “What this shows is that the brain actually learns how to solve Tetris conundrums with energy […]

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  23. t says:

    I play tetris so often that people gather around to watch and find it therapeutic to do so. It’s the only “video/computer” game I play. Sometimes when I play it a lot I start dreaming about the blocks fitting perfectly into each slot…I kid you not. I have never bothered searching up the champs…I literally do it all for fun and I love this game!!!

    • t says:

      I forgot to mention that I am best at playing the game while participating in a conversation or “listening” to a TV show in the background…it’s multitasking at it’s finest.

  24. […] like Tetris have been shown to help the brain’s gray matter thicken and improve in efficiency. thebeautifulbrain.com 37. Why don’t we notice the darkness every time we blink? Part of the brain switches off and it […]

  25. […] like Tetris have been shown to help the brain’s gray matter thicken and improve in efficiency. thebeautifulbrain.com 37. Why don’t we notice the darkness every time we blink? Part of the brain switches off and it […]

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