Without a doubt, Tetris is one of the most popular video games ever designed in the history of digital entertainment. When evoking its title, we can all visualize how its characteristic figures move to the sound of “Music A” (a MIDI format arrangement of a theme of Russian origin known as Korobeiniki).

Millions of children and adults from all over the planet have dedicated countless hours to it, because along with other icons (like the arch-rivals Mario and Sonic), it is part of the Olympus of a business area whose progression seems unstoppable.

It is a work so well known that it has even given a name to a phenomenon of perception that is still the subject of much research today, but which we still seem to be far from understanding in its entirety. It is none other than the Tetris effect . Let’s see what it consists of.

What is the Tetris effect?

The human brain, like space or the ocean floor, is still a mystery to science. Despite the fact that we are in a time of fascinating developments, we still do not know the organ that lives inside our head, exactly the same one that we should use to discover it.

When it was first described, it was given a secondary role, with the weight of consciousness being placed on the heart. Today, however, we know that the brain is the organic support of all that we are, and that it is even capable of varying its form and function to adapt to what we do (if there is any difference between “being” and “doing”).

Neural plasticity is a property of this organ that allows it to self-mold to efficiently distribute its own resources and adapt to the demands that different situations impose on it daily. Thus, both the structure and the activity of the nerve tissues depend on what consumes our time. In this sense, habits are the architects of our thoughts and actions, through their enormous potential to define the long-term processing of information.

Science has tried to discover how certain activities change the structure of the brain , and the resonances of all of this on cognitive functions such as memory and/or attention. Tetris has been, without a doubt, the most frequently used game in the literature for this purpose. In purely organic terms, some works have shown that playing it increases the density of the grey substance in the temporal and prefrontal lobes, which are basic for higher order cognitive processes and memory or spatial vision.

Based on these findings, many other investigations were carried out to understand the effect of this “change” on cognitive dimensions. The literature indicates that incorporating Tetris into our habits can translate into improved non-verbal learning processes, mental rotation of figures in two dimensions, and the ability to reason in spatial terms. It is also likely that the practice has a positive impact on visual memory, and there are even studies that have found it useful in reducing the intensity and frequency of post-traumatic flashbacks.

Despite this, most of these effects are still not definitively certified, nor is it known how long they would last if they existed.

All of the above could be the consequence of plastic changes in the brain parenchyma , and would be potentially useful for the design of psychological intervention programs and neurological or neuropsychological rehabilitation.

Beyond the positive effects, however, there are also studies that have shown that playing too long for one day at this title can lead to alterations in perception and in the various mechanisms we use when processing information from the sense organs. So much so that Tetris has become a research paradigm in cognitive psychology.

For this article, emphasis will be placed only on the last such phenomenon, which has been coined in the scientific literature (and in popular culture) as the Tetris effect. How it extends to different contexts will also be detailed at the end, since we know that it can also occur in other everyday activities.

How do you express yourself?

Tetris is a game that has the ability to “hook” its users, since it consists of simple and addictive mechanics. It consists of a succession of geometrically very simple pieces that move in vertical scroll (from top to bottom). The user’s function is to pile them up so that they fit together perfectly , taking into account their composition and without leaving any gaps between them. When the task is carried out correctly, the system “rewards” us by eliminating the accumulation of pieces, since our final purpose is to avoid them from occupying the whole screen. At that moment the session would end and a count of the total score obtained would be made.

As time passes without the game being completed, the speed of the game accelerates (and so does the accompanying music) and progression becomes more difficult. As you can see, the user keeps his eyes fixed during the game time, attentive to a repetitive and constant procession of stimuli. This is how the fundamental criteria for the effect we are concerned with are reproduced, which we now go on to describe by areas, and which could flood our thoughts or intrude into the unfathomable world of our dreams. Even so, it should be noted that its effects occur for very short periods, and are therefore generally reversible.

1. Perception of reality

One effect that some users describe after playing Tetris for a long time is that their way of perceiving reality changes somehow. The descriptions on this issue coincide in pointing out that there is a “transference” of the task required during the game to real life, in which the objects that form it become more polygonal and simple in nature.

Although they continue to be captured exactly the same way through the sense organs, their characteristics change as their properties are processed, the outline of their overall silhouette is emphasized and details (cubes, rectangles, circles, etc.) are ignored.

The person is still capable of perceiving the details of the object, but with a sort of exacerbated awareness of its elemental polygonality . As a direct result of all this, he usually tries to imagine how his surroundings could “fit or adjust”, transferring the habits acquired in the game to his own real life. Most commonly, the horizon is perceived as the tower of Tetris pieces, and the contours of the elements around it are scrutinized to determine how they might be assembled. The same can also happen in the organization of the elements of a house, or in the parking spaces reserved for vehicles.

In some cases, the person might even surprise himself by trying to stack the objects around him in a way similar to a game of Tetris. In this case the perceptive changes would have their resonance on the behavior. Fortunately, this is not the most common.

2. Intrusion

In addition to the above, some Tetris users point out that, after having been playing for several hours, they continue to perceive the movement of the pieces despite having ended the game.

It is common for this feeling, which is given the parasitic image label, to increase when we close our eyes or find ourselves in dark places (where any visual reference to the environment is lost). The characteristic music of the game may also remain, being heard in a “loop” even though it is no longer in the perceptive field. It is for this reason that in the scientific literature on this subject it has been considered a form of hallucination, despite the fact that the clear consciousness of its mental origin is maintained.

Finally, some people also end up dreaming about the Tetris pieces falling over and over again, without end or objective, dragging the inertia of the habit to the same dream scenario.


The Tetris effect occurs as a direct result of prolonged and repeated exposure to a specific activity , to which a significant effort has been directed in the hours prior to its onset. It is common after very long days of work in which the visual field was reduced to a pattern of simple stimuli and repetitive presentation or, under the assumption that we are concerned, after a marathon or excessive game.

In any case, it seems to be an alteration in the processing of information that obeys habits that have been established in everyday life, to the point of ending up being mixed with everyday life in an intrusive and/or parasite-like way.

Appearance of this psychological phenomenon in other contexts

Any activity in our daily life that tends to unfold in a prolonged manner, and whose characteristics are enormously simple and repetitive, is susceptible to provoke effects similar to those described for Tetris. Despite the fact that the phenomenon was popularised through play, alludes to a reality of human processing that extends beyond it and reproduces itself in the face of stimuli that harbour the aforementioned qualities.

Thus, the writer could be invaded by lines of text on the white background of the computer, and the cook could keep his eyes on his work table even when he goes to bed.

The stimuli that trigger it are, therefore, enormously varied. And in any case, they will describe the way in which the human brain adheres to habits and the possible neuroplastic effects that underlie them (which remain largely unknown).

Bibliographic references:

  • Hagenaars, M.A., Holmes, E.A. and Elzinga, B. (2017). Tetris and Word games lead to fewer intrusive memories when applied several days after analogue trauma. European Journal of Psychotraumatology, 8(1), 1386959.
  • Lau-Zhu, A., Holmes, E.A. and Holmes, J. (2017). Selective Association Between Tetris Game Play and Visuospatial Working Memory: A Preliminary Investigation. Applied Cognitive Psychology, 31(4), 438-445.