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Understanding the Tetris Effect

Submitted by jreid on

Part one of a two-part blog series.

I remember vividly when the Nintendo Game Boy handheld game console came out. More importantly, I remember the accompanying game that came with it – Tetris. That equally exciting yet frustrating puzzle game where shapes – four different ones in fact – fell from the top of the screen forcing players to move and rotate them in an attempt to create an unbroken horizontal line. Even to this day, when I hear the Tetris theme song, my heart begins to flutter as I am reminded of the stress of seeing the broken lines quickly accumulate until the final shape couldn’t fit. Game over. Or so I thought!

It turns out that avid Tetris players, who devoted extended periods of time to the game, reported that when they left the game and ventured back into reality, they would visualize the shapes falling in their peripheral vision or see the shapes when their eyes were closed. Some would find themselves thinking about how shapes could fit together in the real world, such as the boxes on a supermarket shelf. This true and observable phenomenon is called the Tetris Effect. In psychology it is used to describe the condition where “a person devotes so much time and attention to an activity that it begins to pattern their thoughts, mental images, and dreams.” Who would have known that this phenomena and playing Tetris could have far-reaching psychological implications on our lives and how we see the world around us.

I recently finished the audiobook The Happiness Advantage by Shawn Achor – a recommendation from a Junior School parent. The book explains, in greater detail, the Tetris Effect. The author states that the Tetris Effect isn’t just about video games; it can be seen as “a metaphor for the way our brains dictate the way we see the world around us.”

Any one of us can fall into some version of the Tetris Effect on any given day. We can get into a pattern of thinking and behaving – at school, at work, at home – that we are unable to break. Imagine, then, the effects when our thinking and behavior is negative. This can lead us to complain, be difficult, act out, second-guess ourselves and be downright grumpy. In the moment, we are not purposely trying to be difficult; rather, our brains, like those of avid Tetris players scanning for shapes, are honed and trained to scan our environment and in a mindset such as this, our brain is scanning for negatives. Getting stuck in a Negative Tetris Effect, as described by the author, can be debilitating for students, parents and professionals alike as it can have a direct effect on our happiness and work performance. Imagine, however, if we can learn to shift our mindset to have our brains scan for and focus on the positive more often.

For my follow-up blog in February, I will reveal the three most important tools available to us to help shift our focus from the negative to positive, while also acknowledging the possibility of positivity being overdone. Until then, I challenge you to consider the following: notice how you are feeling at the end of the day. Reflect on it, write it down or share it with someone. Those days where you feel caught up in the Negative Tetris Effect, pause and think of ways you might have been able to reshift your focus towards thinking and behaving in a way that made you more creative, motivated and adaptive. And then next month, with the tools I will share, parents, students and teachers alike will be able to learn proven ways to reshift that focus when needed to work for us, not against us.

(Note: If you’ve been following the news, the game Tetris has in fact been recently beaten. It turns out that a teenager from Oklahoma is believed to be the first person to accomplish this feat. Imagine all the shapes he is seeing in his sleep!)