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How Tetris Makes You Smarter

Posted by Josh Rothman  June 8, 2011 07:45 AM

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If you're of a certain age, then one of your razor-sharp childhood memories may well be of unwrapping an original, brick-sized Nintendo Game Boy and playing its debut game, Tetris. (You may also remember the Tetris theme music -- which, it turns out, is actually based on a sad Russian folk song, "Korobeiniki.") Since that time, millions of man-hours have been devoted to those rotating Tetriminoes.

They weren't, it turns out, wasted hours: Jeremy Fordham, writing at The Beautiful Brain, recaps some of the research showing that Tetris actually transforms your gray matter, the 'plastic' part of your brain that changes as you learn. The main piece of evidence is a 2009 study showing that just thirty minutes of Tetris a day can produce positive changes in the brain. As Fordham explains, it's all about "the Tetris effect":

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.

The 'thickening' happens because the gray matter neurons become more interconnected: 'thicker' neural networks process Tetris problems faster. This isn't the only neurologically aspect of Tetris, either: In 2009, a study at the University of Oxford found that playing Tetris after a traumatic event might diminish traumatic flashbacks afterwards. Tetris, the lead author suggests, "specifically interferes with the way sensory memories are laid down in the period after trauma." I'll go out on a limb and speculate: Tetris is probably the sort of structured input that the brain responds to especially well. If only the rest of the world were as simple!

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About brainiac Brainiac is the daily blog of the Globe's Sunday Ideas section, covering news and delights from the worlds of art, science, literature, history, design, and more. You can follow us on Twitter @GlobeIdeas.
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Brainiac blogger Kevin Hartnett is a writer in Columbia, South Carolina. He can be reached here.

Leon Neyfakh is the staff writer for Ideas. Amanda Katz is the deputy Ideas editor. Stephen Heuser is the Ideas editor.

Guest blogger Simon Waxman is Managing Editor of Boston Review and has written for WBUR, Alternet, McSweeney's, Jacobin, and others.

Guest blogger Elizabeth Manus is a writer living in New York City. She has been a book review editor at the Boston Phoenix, and a columnist for The New York Observer and Metro.

Guest blogger Sarah Laskow is a freelance writer and editor in New York City. She edits Smithsonian's SmartNews blog and has contributed to Salon, Good, The American Prospect, Bloomberg News, and other publications.

Guest blogger Joshua Glenn is a Boston-based writer, publisher, and freelance semiotician. He was the original Brainiac blogger, and is currently editor of the blog HiLobrow, publisher of a series of Radium Age science fiction novels, and co-author/co-editor of several books, including the story collection "Significant Objects" and the kids' field guide to life "Unbored."

Guest blogger Ruth Graham is a freelance journalist in New Hampshire, and a frequent Ideas contributor. She is a former features editor for the New York Sun, and has written for publications including Slate and the Wall Street Journal.

Joshua Rothman is a graduate student and Teaching Fellow in the Harvard English department, and an Instructor in Public Policy at the Harvard Kennedy School of Government. He teaches novels and political writing.

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