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The Tetris Effect: You Are What You Repeatedly Do

It is interesting meeting new people when one’s profession is a psychologist. If I had a dollar for every time someone asked what I do for a living and after hearing my answer, they follow with “are you analysing me right now?” I’d be a millionaire.

Well not quite. I’d have a good extra $20 in my pocket. But even so, I am asked this question in social settings way too often. I usually laugh it off and say ‘no, of course not’, but truth be told, I probably am. I am most likely analysing every single word that comes out of their mouths. I don’t mean to do this. It’s obviously automatic.

We are all like this. You are probably not testing your psychological skills on everyone you meet, but you are experiencing the world from how you have been trained to see it, formally and informally.

For example, a journalist is always looking for a good media story, a doctor can’t stop diagnosing, a photographer sees the perfect shot, a stylist see a potential makeover and comedians see a joke in everything.

We are still doing these things even when we don’t think we are doing it. This is because what we spend most of our time repeatedly doing, we unconsciously still do when we are not physically doing them anymore.

Make sense? This is known as the Tetris Effect. Any ‘80s or ‘90s gamer will remember this addictive video game in which blocks fall from the top of the screen and the player needs to fit them into a sequence below.

Researchers found that people who played Tetris for a prolonged amount of time could then find themselves thinking about ways that different shapes in the real world could fit together — like boxes on shop shelf, bricks in a wall or buildings on a street. Even when the gamers were not physically playing Tetris, they were still playing the game in real life.

The Tetris Effect can occur with other video games at times when we are repeatedly doing things for hours on end. Looked up at the wall after being on a computer too long? Sea legs on dry land after a boat trip? Can’t get that song out of your head? This is the Tetris Effect at work.

The Tetris Effect is due to the process our brain undergoes when learning a new skill through repetition. It is the forming of a habit. When you repeatedly do something, you are actually rewiring your brain and changing neural connections.

The more you do an activity, the brain eventually requires fewer resources to do it next time. It becomes easier. So much so, that you don’t even know you are doing it.

Why am I telling you this, you ask. Well surely if this happens so automatically with every day activities, surely we can use the Tetris Effect to our advantage to purposefully make our lives better.

Using our brains plasticity, we can become happier if we train our brain to be happier. Just like when we study something over and over again. Just like rehearsing the words of a song, learning to play the piano or taking part in tennis lessons. You do it repeatedly and then it will happen naturally.

It means that we can choose to think or behave in a different way, and train ourselves into doing it automatically.

For example, maybe you want to feel more positive about your life, but the reality you are currently presented with isn’t making you feel this way.

Then you can start “training” yourself to be more positive and eventually you will start seeing the world in a different way.

You can practise purposefully being more positive. Just like playing Tetris for hours on end, and then getting off the game and still seeing patterns and moving blocks. When you practise being positive repeatedly, it will start happening effortlessly for you. The more you do it, the more you will do it, and you won’t even know you are doing it apart from the fact that everything about your life will get better.

To use the Tetris Effect to be more positive, purposefully do these three things:

  1. Look for more positives in your day and list them. Even if it is a bad day and you have to tease out a positive from somewhere.

  2. Do one kind gesture for someone.

  3. Do an activity you know you will enjoy.

Rinse and repeat daily.

What you do more of is what you are going to get. So keep the positives flowing and you will start seeing more of them.

As for me, I will purposefully use the Tetris Effect and my brain’s plasticity to actively not analyse people on my days off. Might get more friends this way, which is a positive.

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