Brain Games

Date:1 May 2011 Tags:,

Researchers convert the classic video game, tetris, into an instrument that probes the human mind. Olivia Koski

Last year, Oxford scientists used the computer game Tetris, in which players guide geometric shapes called tetrominoes into place as they fall, to explore how the brain can be manipulated to protect trauma victims from terrifying flashbacks. In fact, scientists have been using Tetris to probe the secrets of the brain for nearly 20 years. So what makes it such a good tool for neuroscience?

“It has a simple set of rules,” says Richard Haier, a psychologist who first stumbled across the game in a software store in 1991. “Yet every move requires a complex combination of concentration and attention, visual and spatial processing.”

The study
Can intervention prevent symptoms of traumatic stress?
PLoS ONE, 2010 

The method
Oxford scientists exposed 60 volunteers to gory films. Afterward, one-third played Tetris, one-third sat quietly, and the rest played computer trivia games. 

The results
The Tetris players experienced fewer flashbacks than both of the other groups. This implies that a visual.spatial task, which competes for the cognitive resources required to make mental images, may prevent the development of involuntary memories directly after a traumatic event.

The study
Does practice make the brain more efficient?
BMC Research Notes, 2009

The method
A team led by Richard Haier (and funded by Blue Planet Software, the license holder for Tetris) conducted a study involving 26 teenage girls; 15 played Tetris for 1,5 hours a week for three months.

The results
MRI scans showed that the brain function of Tetris players became more efficient over time than the control group’s. Scans also showed increased cortical thickness in multiple areas, providing evidence that the brain’s structure can change with stimulation.

The study

Can taking action reduce the need for internal computation? Acta Psychologica, 2008 

The method

Paul Maglio of the IBM Almaden Research Centre in California led a series of experiments in which subjects were shown previews of tetrominoes before playing Tetris

The results

Players reacted more quickly during Tetris when they saw multiple orientations of shapes prior to playing the game. This supports the theory that actions taken in the external world can help the brain process information more quickly, improving performance.

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