Tetris is good for your brain

Recent highlights from the Ideas blog

By Joshua Rothman
June 12, 2011

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If you’re of a certain age, then one of your razor-sharp childhood memories may be of unwrapping an original, brick-sized Nintendo Game Boy and playing its debut game, Tetris. For hours.

Those hours, it turns out, weren’t wasted: Jeremy Fordham, writing at The Beautiful Brain, recaps some of the research suggesting that Tetris can actually transform your brain. The main piece of evidence is a 2009 study showing that just 30 minutes of Tetris a day can ”thicken” your gray matter by forging tighter connections between your neurons. Those connections help you solve Tetris problems faster and more efficiently. (Presumably they help you solve other problems, too.) Another 2009 study, from the University of Oxford, found that playing Tetris after a traumatic event might diminish flashbacks afterwards: Tetris, the lead author suggests, ”specifically interferes with the way sensory memories are laid down in the period after trauma.”

Before you download that Tetris app, though, consider this: The same properties that make Tetris so good at rewiring your brain--hypnotic repetition, geometric complexity, and that rising sense of desperation as the blocks pile up--are also what make it so addictive. Your thinking skills may improve, but your time-management skills may deteriorate.

Is Britain ready for American education? A. C. Grayling, Richard Dawkins, Niall Ferguson, Steven Pinker, Christopher Ricks, Peter Singer — together, they’re an all-star team of professors from across the liberal arts (Ferguson, Pinker, and Ricks are also local superstars, at Harvard, Harvard, and BU, respectively). This week they’ve announced that they’ll all be teaching for the same college: the New College in the Humanities, a higher-education start-up in London. The college promises to bring American-style liberal-arts education to Britain, at American prices: The tuition is £18,000 a year, or about $30,000. That’s $20,000 cheaper than Harvard, but twice as expensive as Oxford and Cambridge.

The details are still a little murky, but New College looks to be aiming for something halfway between a research university and a liberal arts college. There will be big, American-style lectures, but also traditional English one-on-one tutorials. The student body will be small — according to The Guardian, only 200 students will be admitted the first year.

In an innovative twist, the New College will essentially be renting its top talent from other schools. Other than Grayling, who will be master of the college, none of the celebrity professors have resigned their posts at other universities, and a few have committed to teaching only a few hours a year.

In Britain, it’s the high fees that have caused the most alarm: Many see the college as the first step towards the privatization of English education. Terry Eagleton, an influential English literary critic, has called it a plan hatched by ”money-grubbing dons” who are not only professors, but investors. A recent appearance by Grayling was brought to an abrupt end by a red smoke bomb, laid by student protesters.

Meanwhile Grayling, an eminent philosopher, wants to emphasize the New College’s intellectual goals. The curriculum, he explains, is designed to bridge the gap between C.P. Snow’s ”two cultures”: the new culture of the sciences, and the old culture of the humanities. Establishing a private university in the United Kingdom isn’t so hard; if they work here, they’ll probably work there. Connecting those two divergent ways of thinking, though, is likely to be harder.

I really don’t know clouds at all At some point this summer, you may be lying on the Common or on the Esplanade, watching the clouds and thinking: What are they, really?

In Creation: Life and How to Make It, the artificial life researcher Steve Grand explains that clouds aren’t really things--instead, it makes more sense to think of them as regions of space in which a cooler climate prevails. Water vapor enters the cloud and condenses, then evaporates when it leaves the cloud. In fact the ”contents” of a cloud are constantly changing as the cloud-space moves through the sky. Imagine the pool of light a flashlight makes as you shine it around a dark room: The pool of light moves, illuminating whatever it passes over, but it isn’t ”an object in itself.”

”You,” Grand argues, ”are like a cloud: Something that persists over long periods, while simultaneously being in flux. Matter flows from place to place and momentarily comes together to be you. Whatever you are, therefore, you are not the stuff of which you are made.”

Joshua Rothman is a graduate student and teaching fellow in the Harvard English department and an instructor in public policy at the Harvard Kennedy School of Government. He teaches novels and political writing.


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