Tetris Invades Me

Tetris on a smart phoneEveryone around me seems to be playing Candy Crush: even politicians in working hours.  I’ve never played it myself and have always been averse to mobile gaming.  Perhaps more than that, I’ve been resentful of people cutting themselves off in a virtual world in spaces that we supposedly share.  Headphones do the same for me.  After all, isn’t travel (even daily travel) about ‘people watching’ and some sort of shared experience: I’ve always been someone that enjoys people watching.  I’m sure I would feel differently if I had to make the same journey every day. Perhaps the familiar surroundings lose their appeal and novelty.  Gosh, I’ve got some catching up to do as far as living in the modern world! (Yes, I know, even the word ‘gosh’ sounds like it’s straight out of The Famous Five).

But I’ve had to change my attitude about mobile gaming.  My story starts off with the ‘Peg test’ – in fact the 9-hole peg test (9-HPT).  When the consultant first asked me to do the nine hole peg test I thought he was asking me for a round of golf.  This is an arcane test used in hospitals to measure dexterity and hand eye coordination: in medical parlance it is a quantitative test of upper extremity function (why can’t they just use the word ‘hands’ ).  It’s something that I have had to do every month since my diagnosis.  As the name suggests, it involves placing nine pegs sequentially on a 3 x 3 grid and then removing them as quickly as possible.  The nurse stands there with a stopwatch in hand – no pressure there!  Unfortunately for me I’ve had to watch over the months as this time has slowly but surely increased (not looking for sympathy here, honestly).

Nine hole peg testAre there any sneaky techniques that I could use to counter my failing ‘upper extremity function’?  After all, I need as much to work in my favour as possible.  And I don’t want to consultant to know that things are going wayward.  Well, I’ve  soon exhausted ideas after a few visits, including buying a new pair of ‘middle distance’ glasses (I thought that was for real athletes), trying to develop a trance-like state of mindfulness before partaking and finally, putting the pegs in from the top right instead of the bottom left. All of this was eventually to no avail.  What I did notice is that my emotional state seemed to affect the outcome significantly.  On some days, I really wasn’t up to the challenge.  Perhaps this was part of the measurement – not just my physiological state but also my psychological state. However, what little I know of science suggests to me that they really didn’t want the confounding effect of mood to be included as a factor, with the intention of measuring just the physiological changes.

Anyway, being the competitive type, I was prepared to work on the ‘mood’ or motivational issues, as the physiological aspect (i.e. my hands) weren’t willing to play ball.

imagesIt was at this point that I became one of the enlightened: I discovered Tetris. I had recently ditched my smart-phone. Like most smart phones, it had a battery life of about a nanosecond. I needed something more robust – after all, if my body wasn’t going to be resilient at least my technology should be. If I had a fall I wanted to know I could ring for help.  In moments of stress my eyes would go loopy (optic neuritis) so it had to be a simple button press.  Wow, what a difference, having made the swap.  But now I was left with no apps.  Nothing to while the time away: except for two games that appeared to be out of the ark.   One of these was Tetris.  Created by some clever Russian computer programmer back in 1984.  It gains its name from the Greek numerical prefix tetra and the programmers (Alexey Pajitnov) favourite sport – tennis.

So unless you’ve been living on planet Pluto (is that a planet?) for the last 20 years, you’ll know that this is a tile matching game.  The tiles slowly descend to the bottom of the screen, and it is up to you to reorient the tiles so that they settle snugly amongst those that have already reached the bottom. Essentially it is an ongoing struggle to complete each row, which then evaporate. The eventual outcome is always the same: the blocks pileup and fill the screen at which point you are scuppered!  Hopefully, along the way you have accumulated some points.  You could say it’s a ‘tidying up’ game which appeals to my human tenacity for clearing up messes and creating order (although my wife might not have noticed that character in me).

Well, I’m not about to fill your mind with unnecessary things.  Either you are already a mobile games convert in which case no explanation is required or you are a technophobe – with not the slightest interest in the vagaries of tile games!  However, it’s at this point that the story becomes interesting.  Some 20 years after everybody else, I started to get hooked on Tetris: perhaps surprisingly given that my hands were not doing what they were told to and my eyes were sometimes less than economical with the truth.  When I say hooked, I don’t mean in an unhealthy way.  I tried to confine my attentions to this pastime in the twilight hours.

I did a bit of research.  Was this unhealthy – this preoccupation I had?   I was convinced that it was improving my state of mind.  This would surely give me an edge when it came to my next 9 Peg Test.  There has indeed been plenty of research on the effects of Tetris by those clever neuroscientists.  In fact, Tetris has been the subject of investigation over the last 20 years and is now described as a ‘pharmatronic’.  That’s to say, it has addictive properties much like a drug.  Some recent research by Haier (2009) at the Mind Research Network in Albuquerque used brain imaging to determine whether playing Tetris actually improved ‘grey matter’.  MRI scans were carried out on a group of girls before and after they were introduced to the game.  During this three month period these 26 adolescent girls spent 30 minutes each day practising the game.  A co-investigator in the study, Dr. Rex Jung, observed that  – “One of the most surprising findings of brain research in the last five years was that juggling practice increased gray matter in the motor areas of the brain.”   The researchers at Albuquerque are still trying to establish whether Tetris skills transfer to other cognitive areas such as working memory, processing speed, or spatial reasoning.  At the moment, the results only suggest that playing a lot of Tetris enables the brain to become more efficient at playing Tetris!  So, we can see a lot more Tetris being played in Albuquerque by the up-and-coming youths in the name of research.

Image of brainBut I’m not looking at neuroscience for the answers to my peg test challenge.  Rather than looking at cognition (i.e. can I become more technically competent at Tetris) I feel that the answer lies in behavioural changes.  Let me explain a bit more.  There are certain behavioural attitudes that drastically affect my scores.  Much of this is connected with mood as I mentioned earlier. More importantly, these “behavioural rules” seem to have direct analogies in life.  Choose the wrong approach and you are scuppered.  Choose the right approach and new possibilities are opened up.  I suppose it is like the game of tennis as Pajitnov, the author of Tetris implied.  In this game mental internal battles are continuously played out. Those same battles seem to rear their ugly head in illnesses such as MS.  So, as a casual observer, I have made a note of some of the mental strategies that seem to work for Tetris and the 9 Peg Test.  Most of the strategies seem to involve disengaging the left-hand side of the brain (planning and rational thought) and immersing oneself in the right-hand side of the brain (sensory perception and stimulation).  I call them ‘rules’, but in fact they are ongoing life challenges.  Every time I try to walk across the room with my Zimmer frame, I am presented with these binary options.  If I choose the right one, I am much less likely to fall.  And falling over is my nemesis, my great fear (rational or irrational).  So here are some of the rules. I’ve enumerated them as my 10 Best Tips for Tetris.  This numbering seems to give certain credence to the rules. But please, don’t be fooled, they are entirely unscientific! But they work for me.

10 Tips

My Ten Best Tips for Tetris (MS and life)

(Health warning: not to be taken too seriously: after all, I’m not a master of Tetris or indeed of life)

  1. Be fluid – not static.
  2. Be indifferent between success and failure.  Worrying about failure will lead to failure. You can try too hard.
  3. Mistakes are recoverable. This only became apparent to me after many games. Sometimes making a mistake actually rejigged everything, opening up spaces for new possibilities.
  1. Don’t allow things to get on top of you (drowning). Once you feel overwhelmed by the tiles as they fall from the sky, the end is imminent!
  2. Nurturing – think of the tile arrangement as a bed of roses. Sometimes the diversity and its evolution provides rich avenues
  3. Don’t rely on the right one coming – make the best of your lot. We always look for the nice long tile which nicely fills the long impenetrable hole. Sometimes though, the long tile doesn’t show up and things just get on top of you.  (I’m not sure that this is necessarily a life rule that can be applied to finding a partner!)
  4. Never give up – you can always learn something even in the process of failing!
  5. Eventually giving into defeat can be a glorious inevitability
  6. Rely on your intuition – thinking about it can be fatal
  7. Imagine the tiles as neurones seeking to connect with one another. Once they connect they become invisibly harmonic and ‘conduct’ themselves away. (This is based on Guided Imagery Therapy although not sure that Tetris represents a tranquil scene).



MRI assessment of cortical thickness and functional activity changes in adolescent girls following three months of practice on a visual-spatial task, Richard J Haier, Sherif Karama, Leonard Leyba and Rex E Jung, BMC Research Notes 2009, 2:174

The Psychology of Tetris

Mind-Body Medicine for Multiple Sclerosis: A Systematic Review

Guided imagery therapy


A video by Stefanie and Maria (occupational therapists) on how to do the 9 Hole Peg test.  (Warning: You cannot recover these 15 minutes of your life).


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