Celebrating its 25th anniversary this year, over 125 million Tetris products have been sold in over 50 countries around the globe. While the simple, but addictive puzzle game that challenges players to connect Tetrimino blocks as they fall from the top of the screen has always been considered a “brain game,” new research proves that playing Tetris can actually improve and change the way one’s brain works.
A new study by the Mind Research Network and the Montreal Neurological Institute and Hospital, which focused on 26 girls ages 12 to 15, has shown that playing Tetris for as little as 1.5 hours a week over a three-month span increased the thickness of the brain’s cortex and improved brain efficiency. Blue Planet Software, which owns the rights to Tetris, funded this research.
The study, titled “MRI assessment of cortical thickness and functional activity changes in adolescent girls following three months of practice on a visual-spatial task,” used two different MRIs to monitor the brain changes in adolescent girls as they played the game for three months. None of the girls involved in this study were active gamers and none of them had had significant exposure to Tetris prior to this study.
The findings show that Tetris can create positive changes in players’ brains, including those areas that play a role in critical thinking, reasoning, language and processing. Since the cortex naturally deteriorates with age, playing games like Tetris regularly could help keep people sharper, although further research would be required.
“Tetris, for the brain, is quite complex,” said Dr. Richard Haier, who led this study. “It requires many cognitive processes like attention, hand/eye coordination, memory and visual spatial problem solving all working together very quickly. It’s not surprising that we see changes throughout the brain. Our results mean that practicing an activity like playing ‘Tetris’ changes both structure and function in the brain, but there is still much we don’t understand about how these changes work.”
Dr. Sherif Karama, a co-investigator at the Montreal Neurological Institute, said this study is in keeping with a growing body of scientific evidence showing that the brain can change with stimulation and is in striking contrast with the pervasive and only-recently outmoded belief that our brain’s structure is fixed.
“We hope to continue this work with larger, more diverse samples to investigate whether the brain changes we measured revert back when subjects stop playing Tetris,” said Dr. Rex Jung, a co-investigator on the Tetris study and a clinical neuropsychologist. “Similarly, we are interested if the skills learned in Tetris, and the associated brain changes, transfer to other cognitive areas such as working memory, processing speed, or spatial reasoning.”
Haier first explored the cognitive value of Tetris in a 1992 study, which focused on college students. That research showed that those gamers showed increased brain efficiency after 50 days of Tetris practice.
“Other age groups have not yet been studied, so we don’t know yet what brain changes we might see or what effects any brain changes might have,” said Haier.
Alexey Pajitnov, who created Tetris, said the game “definitely improves your mood, and your overall condition.” But he never intended the game to be healthy. He created the puzzle game for people to enjoy when they took a break from work. Tetris was built to give players “happiness and pleasure.”
“As a game designer, I'm definitely more interested in how science can help improve games, but if the side effect is positive for our brains, that's good,” added Pajitnov, who most recently released Tetris Party for Nintendo Wii.
Pajitnox said that now that he has this new data, he’s working on new iterations of the game that will address these new cognitive findings. But he hopes that entertainment will remain the main priority for designing any new Tetris games.
Meanwhile, kids who spend time playing Tetris on their cell phone or Nintendo DSi can now tell their parents that they’re improving their minds and have research to back them up.