Research Indicates Tetris Changes Brain Efficiency


Posted September 1, 2009 - By Stephen Johnson


Researchers at the Mind Research Network today announced the findings of a scientific study that combines Tetris and brain imaging to study the effects of practicing the game on brain efficiency.

The study will be published in open-access journal BMC Research Notes (one of my eight most favorite open-access scientific journals). The research indicates that over a three-month period, adolescent girls who practiced Tetris showed greater brain efficiency compared to a control group. The girls who practiced also had a thicker cortex, but not in the same brain areas where efficiency occurred.

I spoke with Dr. Richard Haier, a co-investigator in the study, this morning to get some perspective on the research, and, of course, to find out whether playing Tetris will make me into a super-human genius who could win a thinking contest with Steven Hawkings.

G4: Thanks for taking the time to talk to me, Dr. Haier. The research you've done shows that practicing Tetris causes a thickening in the cortex and changes in brain efficiency. Would other similar tasks show the same results, or does this research indicate results specific to Tetris?

Dr. Richard Haier: It certainly indicates something specific about Tetris, because we demonstrated it with Tetris, so the question is: Is it likely that only Tetris would produce brain changes? That's very unlikely. However, as far as I know, only Tetris has been studied this way, with neuro-imaging.

G4: Why did you choose Tetris?

Haier: I had done a study with Tetris back in 1992. That was one of the first imaging studies designed to look at the question of what changes in the brain when you learn something. We were hypothesizing, at the time, that when you learn something the brain becomes more efficient -- even though you were doing something better, your brain would use less energy. This is like the first day you learn to drive in a big empty parking lot, and your brain was cooking away, and now you drive in heavy traffic so the question is: Does your brain have to work harder or less hard, now that so much of it has become automatic

So I wanted to study something with a nice learning curve, Something simple to learn that’s actually very complex. So I went to the Egghead software store and told the guys there what I was interested in, and they said, “We just got this game called Tetris.” so they demoed it for me, and I instantly recognized that it was exactly what I needed. I had been thinking about flight simulators, but they were too complex. Tetris was perfect. Simple to learn, but over time, you have a nice learning curve.  So we showed, back in 1992, that when male college students practiced for 50 days, we took a brain scan before and after, and we showed this brain efficiency.

Because we already had this history with Tetris and knew it was amenable to neuro-imagery techniques, we used it again,

G4: So Tetris has become the go-to application for these kind of brain studies.

Haier: I was surprised recently when I googled Tetris in some of the professional journal indexes and found a whole bunch of studies that used Tetris in science research.  We are not alone, but we're the only ones that have used Tetris with Neuro-imaging, which is a very advanced medical research technology. In our minds, Tetris is an extremely useful tool for neuro-science research.

In this study that has just come out..it was not set up to study Tetris as Tetris, it was set up to use Tetris as a neuro-science tool to study what happens in the brain when you learn something complex like Tetris..

G4: If playing Tetris makes my Cortex thicker, is my head going to get fat?

Haier: (long pause)...you mean... it's relative...

G4:  I mean, will the actual size of my head increase as I play Tetris?

Haier: Um. No. The answer is no. The amount of cortical change we're seeing here is extremely small. A fraction of a millimeter. And it's not everywhere in the brain, just specific areas. 

G4: So I don't need to buy new hats?

Haier: No.

G4: Can you do a scientific study on why I see Tetris shapes when I close my eyes if I play a lot of Tetris?

Haier: Actually, someone has done it.

G4: Really?

Haier: Really. There was a study done at Harvard, where people played Tetris, and when they dreamed that night, they dreamed about Tetris, and this was related to how much better they got over time.  I don't recall the details, but you can look it up.

G4: That's amazing. That was a joke question...

Haier: Your joke question gets at a deeper an underlying issue about the brain. On the one hand we know a lot about the brain. On the other we know almost nothing. and so all these everyday experiences, like driving a car in traffic at 60 miles an hour. How does the brain do that, exactly, and listen to the radio at the same time?  How does that all work? We've all had that experience; we have it every day. The question is: Can we understand the mechanism? When you're talking about what happens in the brain over a three-month period where you learn Tetris, one question is: Can we learn anything about the principles of how the brain learns something, and the actual mechanisms that could help us answer questions like: "why do some children fail in school?" With brain imaging technology, can we see that happening, and use that information to better understand learning and memory and attention, so that when people have are deficient or have an illness that affects their brain, and their learning and memory and attention go bad, can we use this information to fix them? That's why I say Tetris is a tool for neuro-science.

If you go on YouTube and search for Tetris Grandmaster and watch some of the best Tetris players in the world in real-time, you can scarcely believe a human can do this. I watched two Tetris grand-masters play against each other, and as a scientist, I found this amazing! They were calculating and making moves so quickly I thought I was being kidded. That this was computers. But I was watching it live. The question is: What is it about their brains that allow them to reach that level, and can we learn something that will help the rest of us do better than we ordinarily could do?

G4: So will playing Tetris make you smarter in some way?

Haier: Nothing in our research demonstrates that.

G4: Which is cooler: The left superior frontal gyrus or the left anterior superior temporal gyrus?

Haier: I was just thinking about that this morning. They're equally cool. You might ask the question: "if you were forced to choose, which brain area would you lose and why?"

G4: Well, which would it be?

Haier: I would choose to lose none of them, because they're all important for something!

G4: This is a question from a co-worker: Do I really need my Medulla oblongata? Or can I just get rid of it?

Haier: This is a question for his spouse. If she likes him, he wants it. If she doesn't like him: Watch out.

G4: As a scientist, can you tell me whether I should save the long pieces when I play Tetris?

Haier: As a scientist, I can not. But I have watched all these grandmasters play on YouTube, and they tend to save them. So when I play personally, I save them.

G4: Which version of Tetris do you like best?

Haier: I like the original simple version. I find it quite challenging and engaging. And if it's doing something in my brain that doesn't hurt me, so far the better.

G4: Can you say that for certain that Tetris doesn't hurt you?

Haier: As far as I know, it doesn't have any bad effects. But that really hasn't been studied.

G4: Whenever any studies on games come out, a lot of people in the popular press seem to believe that science has proved that video games are good or bad or cause violence or whatever. So what do you think overall about the nature of video games' effects on the brain or behavior?

Haier: Both Tetris studies that we've done provide a foundation for newer studies that are more complex, that get at some of these issues. By showing that Tetris does have effects that you can measure with imagining technology, it gives researchers a foundation to work from. But we really need to have a lot of people working on this from a lot of different places with a lot of different games asking a lot of different practical questions to really establish what are the benefits and what are the risks and why are these things so popular.

This really is interesting neuro-science research, but we don't want to over-interpret what we're finding. There are a lot of interesting questions about the brain that we can help address using things like Tetris.

G4: Are you saying that playing Tetris makes you a genius?

Haier: There is no evidence for that as far as I know.

G4: Thanks for taking the time to talk to me!

There you have it, readers: Science has proven that playing Tetris a lot will make you into a genius! Thanks, Science!

Tags: Videogames
Research Indicates Tetris Changes Brain Efficiency


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