Thursday, November 25, 2010

Reading about Tetris

Tetris ... who would have thought that this simple, yet highly addictive, game would have spawned so much interesting research?

It makes sense though, the game has a number of properties that make it an interesting and useful research tool. Most importantly, in my opinion, it's fun to play (this is one of Kirsh and Maglio's observations) so actually getting the subjects to sit down and play the game for the required amounts of time is nowhere near as challenging as if, say, you were getting calculus naive subjects to sit down and learn differentiation.
That's obviously not all there is to it though - other than the pragmatic value in it being fun, some of the really interesting properties are that
  1. It's simple - it has a very low barrier to entry (unlike the learning differential calculus example above)
  2. It (potentially) engages a number of cognitive processes (like perception, planning, mental rotation, learning etc.)
  3. The processes that are engaged are put under pressure because of the high speed of game play.
For the most part this general specification of the properties of Tetris more than suffice to justify it as a research tool.
I'm going to be blogging about any interesting papers / stories I find about Tetris in the next couple of months, but to illustrate how Tetris has been put to use, I'll give a quick gloss of two recent studies involving the game.

Tetris "inoculation" against Post-traumatic stress disorder

Of course one can not be literally "inoculated" against PTSD, but a recent study suggests a way of reducing the number of trauma related flashbacks using Tetris (or, presumably, something that has the same kinds of functional properties as Tetris).
The researchers had their subjects watch a distressing film in which people were injured and killed. They then randomly selected subjects to play Tetris for 10 minutes (after a shared 30 minute break). The subjects were then asked to record the number of times during the week in which they experienced flashbacks of the film. It turns out that the group of participants who engaged in the Tetris task experienced significantly fewer flashbacks.

The basic idea behind the study is nicely summarised by the authors - this is taken from the abstract

Our theory is based on two key findings: 1) Cognitive science suggests that the brain has selective resources with limited capacity; 2) The neurobiology of memory suggests a 6-hr window to disrupt memory consolidation. The rationale for a ‘cognitive vaccine’ approach is as follows: Trauma flashbacks are sensory-perceptual, visuospatial mental images. Visuospatial cognitive tasks selectively compete for resources required to generate mental images. Thus, a visuospatial computer game (e.g. “Tetris”) will interfere with flashbacks.
You can read the paper here

(thanks to Michael Meadon for drawing my attention to this study)

Tetris increases cortical thickness and changes brain functioning

Another recent study comes from Richard Haier, Karama, Leyba, and Jung who took a group of adolescent girls and had them play Tetris a few hours a week for three months. They also obtained structural and functional data on the girl's brains
before and after the Tetris training.

What they found was doubly interesting - firstly, they found that there was increased cortical thickness (structural change) as well as functional changes in the brains of the girls who had been playing Tetris compared to the control group who hadn't. Something along these lines were expected, however, there was another interesting result, and that was that the location of the thickening of the cortext and the functional changes were in different places in the brain.

The paper, in all it's gory detail, can be found online here

I'm going to hold off discussing this paper in any depth though - it links up with a number of other interesting things that I think deserve a little more attention. So give it a read, and we can get into it next time.

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