Remember Tetris? Originally released in Russia in 1984, it became the top selling video game of all time, with more than 495 million copies in circulation. It’s a simple game – different shaped tiles fall from the top of the screen and you arrange them in patterns at the bottom of the screen.
It seems like a simple-minded time killer. It’s not rocket science. But it turns out to have some interesting effects on our brains. Here are two recent studies.
Tetris and Intrusive Memories
Lets say you’re in a car accident. The trauma, whether physical or psychological, may result in intrusive memories, which are hallmarks of post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD).
When an intrusive memory occurs, the survivor essentially relives the traumatic event. It seems plausible that reducing intrusive memories would help survivors manage stress and maintain metal health. So, how might one reduce intrusive memories or prevent their formation in the first place? How about Tetris?
This was the hypothesis of a study recently published in Molecular Psychiatry. Researchers recruited 71 subjects in an emergency room at a hospital in Oxford, England. The subjects had recently (less then six hours previously) experienced an automobile accident and were randomly assigned to one of two groups:
Researchers contacted the subjects one week and one month after the accident. The result? Subjects who played Tetris “recorded significantly fewer intrusive memories” and “reported less distress from intrusion symptoms.”
Tetris and Your Cortex
What about people who aren’t involved in a traumatic event? Does Tetris have an impact on them? This was the question asked several years ago in a study conducted by researchers at the University of New Mexico.
The researchers recruited 26 girls, aged 12 to 15 and randomly assigned them to the experimental group or the control group. The researchers taught the girls in the experimental group to play Tetris and coached them to play regularly. The girls in the control group were coached not to play Tetris. The researchers followed the two groups for three months. During that time the girls in the Tetris group played the game approximately 90 minutes per week.
At the end of three months, the Tetris-playing girls had a “significantly thicker cortex” than the non-Tetris-playing girls. The cortex is gray matter and is generally associated with higher-level brain functions such as memory, attention, and planning.
Does this mean that playing Tetris will make your smarter or your brain more efficient? Probably not. Playing Tetris probably only makes you better at playing Tetris. But it’s more evidence that the brain is plastic; you can change it by how you behave. It’s not surprising in a group of youngsters whose brains are not yet mature. It might be very telling to replicate the experiment with a group to oldsters to see just how plastic their brains are. My hypothesis: there’s still a lot of plasticity left.
So Tetris can teach us about brain plasticity and help suppress intrusive memories. Not bad for a free video game. I wonder what else it can do.