Sinking blocks and clearing lines in Tetris may pay off with more than just a high score. Playing the classic shape-fitting computer game, which celebrates its 25th anniversary this year, for just three months may boost the size and efficiency of parts of the brain, a study published September 1 in BMC Research Notes finds.
Who knew playing Tetris for hours had a positive effect? (Hint: not your mom.)
When researchers wanted to test this theory out, they recruited young girls because boys tend to already have extensive video game playing experience, which may have affected the results.
Brain scans revealed that certain regions of gray matter — an information-processing mix of brain cells and capillaries — grew thicker in 15 adolescent girls who had played Tetris for three months. On average, these participants played for just 1.5 hours per week.
Although parts of the brain became bigger, other parts became less active.
Surprisingly, the brain regions that got bigger over the three months of Tetris play were not the same regions that showed a drop in activity, ruling out the simple explanation that as brain regions get bigger, they become more efficient.
The most important question from this study remains unanswered – is it good for you?
Haier and colleagues don’t know whether these Tetris-induced brain changes have any real benefits in tasks like memory, spatial reasoning and problem-solving ability. “We know Tetris changes the brain,” Haier says. “We don’t know if it’s good for you.”
On a related note, research has shown that women who play video games can improve their spatial skills.
“Our first experiment discovered a previously unknown sex difference in spatial attention,” said Jing Feng, a psychology doctoral student and lead author of the study. “On average, women are not quite as good at rapidly switching attention among different objects and this may be one reason why women do not do as well on spatial tasks. But more important than finding that difference, our second experiment showed that both men and women can improve their spatial skills by playing a video game and that the women catch up to the men,” Feng added. “Moreover, the improved performance of both sexes was maintained when we assessed them again after five months.”
It is important research with non-trivial applications in the field of education. One of the reasons why men rather than women are drawn to games which improve spatial skills is because those games tend to be violent 3D action shooter type games, like Halo 3, which are simply not as appealing to women. Unfortunately, playing The Sims or other games which require strategizing and deep thinking will do nothing for enhancing spatial intelligence in particular.
“One important application of this research could be in helping to attract more women to the mathematical sciences and engineering. Since spatial skills play an important role in these professions, bringing the spatial skills of young women up to the level of their male counterparts could help to change the gender balance in these fields that are so important to our economic health,” Spence added.
Spatial intelligence is not the only target for improvement. What if it were possible to boost fluid intelligence by training with a video game? Ed Yong points out that the latest research indicates it is possible, if done correctly.
There are products available on the market now such as Brain Age, Brain Age 2 and Big Brain Academy which will improve your abilities at certain specific tasks. However, improving at a specific task does not necessarily translate into an enhancement of overall fluid intelligence.
Nonetheless, Susanne Jaeggi from the University of Michigan has developed a training programme involving a challenging memory task, which does appears to improve overall fluid intelligence. The trainees do better in intelligence tests that have nothing to do with the training task itself and the more training they receive, the higher their scores.
Here’s how the actual training test worked:
Jaeggi recruited 70 young students and set half of them on a challenging training regime, involving the so-called “n-back task”. These trainees watched a series of screens where a white square appeared in various positions on a black background. Each screen appeared for half a second, with a 2.5 second gap before the next one flashed up. While this happened, the trainees also heard a series of letters that were read out at the same rate.
At first, their job was to say if either the screen or the letter matched those that popped up two cycles ago but the number of cycles increased or decreased depending on how good the students were at the task. Boffins had to compare the current pair with those many cycles ago, while dunces only had to remember fairly recent ones. The students sat through about half an hour of training a day for either 8, 12, 17 or 19 days, and were tested on their fluid intelligence before and after the regimen using the German Bochumer-Matrizen Test.
Those who participated for longer had better scores on a fluid intelligence test. The benefits extended to those who were initially low performers, not just the brilliant participants. Many training regimes have been designed to do precisely what was accomplished here, so what made this one successful where others have failed?
Jaeggi thinks that this task worked where others have failed because it remained challenging. The students were never allowed to get comfortable with the task – as soon as they improved, it became accordingly more difficult. Faced with the combination of two info streams and shifting difficulty levels, they couldn’t develop simple strategies or switch to autopilot. The task was also very challenging. To succeed in it, students had to remember old items, constantly update the memories they were keeping, block out irrelevant ones, and manage two tasks at the same time using both sound and sight.
Ed Yong ends with some related questions:
How exactly does the training programme lead to better fluid intelligence? At what point will the benefits of extra training start to level off? And how long will it take for the programme’s effects to wear off, it they ever do? The answers to these questions will help to decide if the findings are indeed “highly relevant to applications in education” as the authors claim.
And speaking of education, perhaps readers who are more familiar with the literature on intelligence can enlighten me on this: Jaeggi claims that fluid intelligence is fairly unchangeable in the face of education, which seems quite shocking. That would imply that our education system improves our knowledge and skills, but not our innate ability to solve problems or draw inferences. Is that really the case?
Try your hand at a free dual n-back style memory and intelligence training test here.
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