Since its debut over 30 years ago, Tetris has been one of the world’s most popular games. There’s something joyfully addicting about racing against the clock to tilt, shift, and fit those tetrominos into space.
But there’s much more to Tetris than meets the eye. Did you know that Tetris can also help you sleep better, encourage lucid dreaming, and develop new habits?
This is all thanks to the “Tetris effect.”
What is the Tetris effect?
The Tetris effect describes the phenomenon where if your brain spends a lot of time focusing on one thing, it tends to show up everywhere—in your thoughts, the way you see the world, and your dreams. For example, people who spend a lot of time playing Tetris may find themselves packing items in their suitcase like tetrominos, or seeing how various real-world objects could line up together like in the game Tetris.
The term was first coined by a journalist for a Wired article back in 1994. Today the Tetris effect is known more broadly as game transfer phenomenon. Serious video gamers often find that the strategy and actions they take during a game tend to influence their thought patterns in the real world.
This phenomenon is named after Tetris not only because it’s an easy metaphor to understand, but because it’s been observed in studies of people playing Tetris. In a 2000 study by Harvard University, students were instructed to play Tetris for several hours before bed to see how it influenced their thoughts and dreams. 63% of players reported seeing images of tetrominoes floating as they drifted off to sleep, as well as in their dreams.
In the study, students were sorted into three groups: Tetris novices, expert players, and individuals with amnesia. The amnesiacs provided perhaps the most interesting results. They couldn’t remember playing the game, so they wouldn’t think about it while drifting off to sleep. And yet, they still reported seeing images of Tetris in their dreams—suggesting the impact our daytime activities and thoughts can have on how our brain processes memories.
This is all interesting, but how can you use the Tetris effect to actually help you sleep?
Can the Tetris effect help you sleep?
The students in the Harvard study saw tetrominoes as they drifted off to sleep, but the Tetris effect can do a lot more for your sleep than simply swapping out sheep for tetrominoes.
The Tetris effect occurs because your brain spends a lot of time on one activity. Because you spend so much time on this activity, your brain smartly decides to dedicate some mental storage space to it. Essentially, your brain helps you “practice” for that activity as other points in the day when you’re not engaging in it, by helping you get better at identifying related patterns.
The Tetris effect can occur with any repetitive movements, exercises, thoughts, or images. This means you can change your thoughts, perceptions, and habits simply by what you choose to focus your brain on.
Want to use the Tetris effect to your advantage? Follow these tips to sleep better, lucid dream, and turn bad habits into better ones.
To sleep better using the Tetris effect, the key is to train your mind to repetitively focus on relaxing thoughts and images that remind you of sleep. These could be Zzzs, an image of yourself sleeping, or thinking about darkness.
By training your mind to focus on these thoughts, you’ll be less prone to get distracted by stressful thoughts, or random ideas and memories from your day. Don’t get frustrated if this practice takes some time to hone. Just keep at it!
Beyond your thoughts, you can also repeat the same activities each night—in order to train your brain to recognize these as “skills” for sleep. One easy way to do this is with a bedtime routine.
Each night before you go to bed, follow the same activities in the same order. It doesn’t matter what the activities are, as long as they are relaxing. You might meditate (or visualize Tetris blocks satisfactorily falling into place), light an aromatherapy candle, take a warm bath, read a chapter of your book, brush your teeth, and turn off the lights.
Beyond falling asleep, many people use a technique similar to the Tetris effect to help them lucid dream. Lucid dreams are dreams where you’re aware that you’re dreaming. Almost everyone experiences a lucid dream at least once in their lives, but many people actively seek out lucid dreaming on a regular basis.
Proponents believe that by exploring the dream state, you can use lucid dreams to improve your waking life. You might use the dream environment to find a creative solution to a particular problem that’s been bugging you, cope with a traumatic memory in a safer, simulated environment, or grow your confidence in the real world.
Hypnagogia is key to successful lucid dreaming. Hypnagogia describes that intermediary state between alertness and when you fall asleep, when you might see random images or shapes that feel dream-like. An example of hypnagogic imagery are the falling tetrimonoes te individuals in the Harvard study saw. By focusing on particular images as you fall asleep, you may help influence the hypnagogic imagery you experience, thereby influencing your brain to dream about a particular topic.
Develop better habits
Just as you focus on certain images to improve your sleep, you can expand the Tetris effect beyond your sleep—to build happier, healthier habits for yourself.
We’re naturally wired to pay attention to—and therefore remember—the negative things that happen to us. The Tetris effect can be your brain’s best defense against this built-in “negativity bias.” For example, if you use the Tetris effect to focus on positive things in your life—such as through a regular gratitude practice—you can train your brain to remember more of the positive things, and be happier as a result.
The Tetris effect can be a powerful life hack. It’s up to you to explore how this beloved video game can improve your sleep, your dreams, and your life. For more on how to get more out of your sleep, check out the resources below: