The ‘Tetris Effect’

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Jess Jarvis

Tetris – a game we’ve all played at some point throughout our childhood. A frustratingly addictive, yet somewhat simplistic game, involving aligning falling blocks in horizontal lines, to gain points.

But whom would’ve thought that a game which stamped out hours of our summer holiday boredom, could hold such valuable, therapeutic properties?

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The BBC reported recently that Tetris may actually be beneficial to our physical and mental health. Helping to ease patient suffering in Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD), curb cravings for addictive substances and even treat lazy eyes!

Scientists have suggested that it is the captivating and immersive ease of playing Tetris which ‘makes it potentially powerful as a therapeutic tool’.

Prof. Emily Holmes, a previous visiting professor in Clinical Psychology at the University of Oxford, has spent many years of her career studying the potential use and effectiveness of Tetris in therapy and medicine. She suggests that it is the visual aspect of Tetris that makes it so absorbing. Unlike other games, the diversity in colour, shape and movement taps into the visual memory. The ‘Tetris Effect’ can be so intense, that people often report seeing the ‘falling blocks in their thoughts and dreams’ after playing.

Easing Suffering in PTSD

Prof. Holmes and her colleagues published a study in 2017, which showed how intrusive memories and ‘flashbacks’ – characteristic of PTSD – could be significantly reduced by playing Tetris. This study was one of the first to look at the use of Tetris as a therapeutic intervention. It suggested that the high ‘visuospatial demands’ of Tetris occupied the sensory elements of memory, preventing the consolidation of traumatic memories in the mind.

6 hours following a motor vehicle trauma, participants were delivered either a control intervention (writing a log for 20 minutes) or a Tetris intervention (20 minutes of game play). A week later, compared to the control group, those whom had played Tetris were significantly less affected by intrusive memories. Furthermore, their incidence of intrusions was significantly lower too!

From analysing previous research, Tetris seems to be the only game which has a positive effect on preventing intrusive memories following trauma. Not only is the intervention extremely effective, it is also very simple and helpful for people to use. It is low in intensity and the game itself, creates minimal distress. It reduces the symptoms of PTSD, whilst still allowing the ability to make sense of the event.

Further studies with more participants could show whether Tetris might have a real impact on the quality of life for sufferers following trauma. This research is only in the early stages though, and has a long way to go before it can be implemented into clinical situations.

Curbing Addiction and Cravings

Scientists from Plymouth University and Queensland University of Technology, have said playing Tetris can also help control cravings for addictive substances.

31 students took part in this experience sampling study. They were sent text messages throughout the day which asked them to rate their current level of cravings for drugs (e.g. cigarettes), food and drink (e.g. coffee, alcohol), and activities such as exercise and sex.

Half of the students were given a device to play short games of Tetris throughout the day. This mini intervention showed Tetris to have an effect, whereby cravings reduced more in those who played the game.

Prof. Jackie Andrade believes Tetris has an effect on curbing addictive cravings, because cravings involve imagining an intense experience of indulging in the use of a particular substance. Therefore, the demanding nature of Tetris on the sensory mental processes in the brain, makes it extremely difficult to imagine cravings vividly and make sense of them, whilst playing Tetris at the same time.

Treating a Lazy eye (Amblyopia)

Dr. Robert Hess, from McGill University in Canada (2013), completed a small study to see whether Tetris could help treat a condition known as lazy eye or amblyopia.

Previous treatments have only focused on retraining the ‘lazy eye’ alone. In the past doctors had recommended “covering the “good” eye with a patch to make the “lazy” one work harder.”

However, it became apparent to the researchers that the only way to help solve amblyopia was to solve the disruption to binocular vision and encourage the two eyes to work together.

Dr. Robert Hess, used headset-video goggles to display an adapted version of Tetris. Through these goggles Tetris was displayed dichoptically, ‘where one eye was allowed to see only the falling objects, and the other eye was allowed to see only the ground plane objects.’ This adaptation required the eyes to work simultaneously.

Results showed half of the participants played regular Tetris with the stronger eye patched up, while the other half of the participants played the adapted game with both eyes open. At the end of the study both groups improved, but those who used both eyes and played the game through the headset, showed a dramatic improvement.

Many people play Tetris just to pass the time. However, it seems as though Tetris may have therapeutic benefits; showing an amazing and captivating effect on the mental and physical processes in the body and enabling interventions for many kinds of disorders and conditions.

 

Controversial Science Studies

Richard Kaskiewicz

The history of science is littered with a myriad of debate and controversial studies undertaken to exact scientific progress. Take the theory of evolution, or the heliocentric model of the solar system, as two well-known examples. These theories challenged the societal norm and had stark implications on the nature of humanity.

In more modern times, the controversy is less of a crisis of faith and more bordering ethics and morality. Until recently, these were left unchecked and the decision of what is right and what is wrong was just made by the researchers and the funding bodies. Only once the boundaries were pushed too far did science gain the ethical framework within which we work today. Despite this, mankind has gained crucial knowledge and insight from these experiments that have guided many aspects of science and how we view the world.

(and if this article leaves you wanting to know more about ethics in science, there will be a link to a recent episode of Eureka!, our science podcast, at the end, for you to learn more!)

The Stanford Prison Experiment

None are perhaps quite as famous as the Stanford Prison Experiment. Conducted by Philip Zimbardo and his team in 1971, this experiment took a group of students at Stanford University and randomly assigned them into 2 groups: one group became the prisoners, and one became the guards. The basement of one of the University’s buildings was set up to be a similar condition to those found in a maximum-security prison.

The guards were given a set of menial tasks that they had to ask the prisoners to perform; if said prisoners did not complete the task, refused to partake, or disobeyed any direct order; the guards were instructed to give out an appropriate punishment. I might add, the use of force was not authorised.

Soon into the experiment, the prisoners refused to clean their plates after a meal and thus were instructed to do 50 press-ups; to which many of them refused. This led the guards to hand out harsher punishments, e.g. giving no meals. The prisoners continued to challenge the guards’ authority and several days into the 2-week long experiment, a heavily abusive environment in which physical and emotional force (i.e. not letting prisoners sleep and harassment) was utilised by the guards to gain compliance. The situation greatly escalated and the conditions became significantly abhorrent, yet it was still days before Zimbardo, whom had assumed the mantle of warden, aborted the experiment – leaving many of the participants at least temporarily traumatised.

The interpretation of this was that under certain situations, even people who are overall morally good will inevitably U-turn, strengthening the notion that absolute power corrupts. This has been used to explain some of the atrocities and abuse witnessed in many prisons and internment camps.

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Image Credit: Wikimedia Commons

The Milgram Shock Experiment

The next most famous, is probably the Milgram Shock Experiment, conducted by Stanley Milgram in the 1960s. Before the experiment, the participants were left in a room and told to socialise with the others there, essentially making friends. They were then split into 2 groups: teachers and learners, and taken to separate rooms. The teachers gave the learners a set of memory tasks, administering an increasing level of a painful electric shock for every subsequent task they failed. Unbeknownst to the teachers however, the learners were a group of actors, whom had pre-recorded cries of agony and pleas begging the teacher to stop the test. No-one was really being shocked, but the point was that the teachers thought they were.

After failing to complete several tasks successfully, the dial reading the levels for the shock began to show danger and the actors would begin to scream and bang on the walls, imploring the teacher to stop and that they couldn’t take it anymore. Despite this, there was a man stood behind the teachers wearing a lab coat and holding a clipboard, conveying a sense of authority. These individuals would tell the teacher to continue, to which all participants did, despite them revealing how distressed it was making them and how they did not wish to harm the learner, whom they had become friends with prior.

Eventually the level of shock surpassed a lethal quantity and no teacher had outright abandoned their role.  In due course, the screaming and cries from the learner stopped and all that could be heard from the other room was silence, several teachers stopped at this point, but the majority continued on, encouraged by the authority figure, even though they thought they had killed or seriously injured their learner, whom they thought could have been them if not for the actions of luck.

This experiment proved to show that that people will obey authority figures, even when the task they are performing strongly works against their code of ethics. This reasoning was used to explain many of the Nazi war crimes and absolve many participants of these in the Nuremberg trials, who as the saying commonly falls, were “Just following orders”.

There are many more of these ethically dubious experiments that have been conducted, which if done today would land the researchers with a hefty prison sentence. However, if it were not for these experiments, much of what we know to be true today, especially in the field of psychology, may never have been revealed.

 

Link to Eureka: https://www.mixcloud.com/EurekaOnForge/eureka-ethics-episode/

UK Science After Brexit

Sophia Akiva

On the 23rd June 2016, the public voted for Brexit: Britain’s exit from the European Union, an event which will inevitably affect the careers of scientists both in the UK and the European Union. It is difficult to predict what the long-term outcome of Brexit will be and many of the arguments supporting Britain leaving the EU were based on speculation rather than fact.

Eight months on, what changes have already been made and what can we extrapolate to form a hypothesis for the future? There are many factors to be considered but today we focus purely on science.

Open communications and data sharing are vital to scientific progress. The European Union is currently working on a cloud network that aims to unite businesses and public services as part of a single data infrastructure. More specifically, it hopes to open the European Open Science Cloud specifically to benefit researchers and scientific professionals across all disciplines.

This enterprise requires an investment of 6.7 billion euros, and there are many who believe that these funds could be put to better use elsewhere, because cloud systems such as Dropbox and Google Drive are sufficient. Yet the greatest strides of discovery are often made through collaboration and exchange of knowledge so an investment in a shared cloud is bound to boost our progress.

The government’s attitude to the referendum result has been to seek out the best outcome for British researchers, but it is important to consider what we ourselves can offer in return. Many prominent scientists support us remaining in the EU because of our contribution to global progress. In a letter to the government signed by 13 Nobel Prize winners, they consider the EU to be the “biggest scientific powerhouse in the world,” stressing that losing EU funding would put British research in “jeopardy.”

Many of the promises made by the Leave campaign were based on the Swiss and Norwegian Models – countries that whilst not members of the EU, are still very prosperous. Switzerland has carried out a lot of ground-breaking scientific research and has become a hub for particle physics due to its hosting of CERN. Perhaps it is because of this that Switzerland is still a member of the European Horizon 2020 science and technology funding scheme?

However, the level of openness in data exchange between Switzerland and other countries in the scheme may be affected by a recent referendum in Switzerland regarding the free movement of people. There is hope that once Britain does leave, we too may still have access to research and information being shared across the European Union. Considering Theresa May’s Hard Brexit plan, though, we can’t be too sure.

The Prime Minister has said that we can achieve great things, and has promised that a further £2 billion is to be invested in scientific research every year until 2020. The funding aims to strengthen the UK’s position in leading fields such as robotics, artificial intelligence, and biotechnology. It is anticipated that by supporting research and development in Britain, we will be able to attract more innovators and investors in technology, providing a steady long term solution to scientific funding and securing Britain’s status as a powerhouse of its own.

Let us hope that the only market not affected by us leaving the EU is the one of information exchange.

On Good and Evil

Rowan Jaines

The concept of evil is often understood to be the polar opposite of being morally good. Marcus Singer referred to the term “evil” as the worst possible term of criticism imaginable. He argued that evil is a human phenomenon since evil deeds must flow from the will to do something evil. In other words, Singer claims that if only humans are moral agents, then it must follow that only humans can perform acts of evil.

Perhaps because of the way in which morality has been entwined with religion and superstition over history, there are branches of thought that state that concept of evil is problematic due to its association with dark spirits and its subsequent denial of explanatory and contextualising factors. Critics of the concept of evil see this denial as dangerous when used in moral, political and legal contexts.

Some, however, believe the term evil is very useful and important in understanding the human world. Back in 2006, Philip Zimbardo, of the famous Stanford Prison Experiment, claimed that “it’s time we [psychologists] asked the big questions like the nature of evil.”. In his famous talk, The Lucifer Effect: Understanding How Good People Turn Evil, he claimed that the right conditions, often conditions designed to elicit obedience as we see in military situations, can create the potential for evil actions in any and all human beings.

The debate over whether evil is something some are born with or a potential we all have within us has raged through the centuries, however, in the early 1990’s the murder of two-year-old James Bulger rendered that question newsworthy.

In 1993, two-year-old James Bulger was led away from a shopping centre by two ten-year-old boys Robert Thompson and Jon Venables, who proceeded to torture and murder him. Bulger suffered so many injuries that none could be isolated as the fatal blow. Terry Eagleton, critical theorist, uses the Bulger case as a way to illustrate our contradictory thinking with regards the nature of evil in his book On Evil.  Like Zimbardo, Eagleton is firm that evil does exist, following Augustine and Aquinas in seeing evil as an “absence” rather than any kind of object.

Both boys in the Bulger case came from difficult backgrounds. Thompson’s mother was an alcoholic who frequently left her seven children alone at home, whilst Venables’ mother suffered from severe depression and repeatedly hit him. Accounts state he was afraid of her, arranging his toys on his bed for protection. It’s very common for those who commit unspeakable crimes to have had abusive and neglectful childhoods, but how can we understand this when equally some who have had loving childhoods still commit unspeakable acts?

It may be a question of empathy. Although for most people the development of empathy is something that begins in infanthood, both developmental trauma and genetic abnormalities can mean that a person develops into adulthood with a lack of empathy. The ability to imagine another person’s experience is a cornerstone of what we imagine it is to be human and takes a central role in much of our moral coding. This makes more sense of Singer’s claim that evil is the worst insult one can level at another person, since the will to perform an evil act indicates a lack of humanity. This also dovetails with Zimbardo’s argument. His examples of conditions which are seen to encourage acts of evil are all conditions where people are stripped of their individuality and their humanity.

It makes sense to consider that although we all have the capability to make moral choices, making a socially responsible decision may be more difficult for people with genetic or developmental barriers to empathy. Considering the concept of evil in light of all we have learnt in modern neuroscience, more shades of grey appear and allow us to develop a more subtle and nuanced understanding of phenomena that previously we needed strong terms such as “evil” to describe. Here we have an excellent example of the power that modern science has in transforming age old moral debates and hopefully allowing us to develop more empathy even towards those who have performed “evil” atrocities in order to understand and grow as a species.  

 

The Butterfly Molecule

Jonathan James

If you cast your mind back to chemistry class at school, you’ll probably remember learning about various types of atomic bonds. Typically, we think about the way atoms bind to one another in a couple of ways – ionic bonding, where oppositely charged ions are held together by electrostatic interactions, and covalent bonding, in which electrons are shared between atoms. For a long time, these looked like the only types of bonding that could exist under our current understanding of how atoms bind one another, but a recent discovery has unveiled a whole new type of bonding that seems to defy our understanding of chemistry.

Let’s quickly recap what we know about atoms. In the traditional model, atoms are made up of a positively charged nucleus, made up of protons (which give it its positive charge), and neutrons. This nucleus is tiny, and the clear majority of the atom’s size is empty space. Surrounding the nucleus are negatively charged electrons, which orbit in ‘shells’, a bit like planets around the sun (but not really… That could be an article all by itself!) Typically, atoms take up a volume so small, that you could fit 200,000,000,000,000,000 of them inside the dot on this exclamation point!

Recently, however, scientists have been able to confirm a theory that they’ve had since 2002. The existence of ‘Rydberg molecules.’ Affectionately referred to as ‘Butterfly molecules’ because of the butterfly like distribution of the orbiting electrons, Rydberg molecules are enormous. In fact, at a millionth of a meter across (huge for an atom!), they are about the same size as an entire E. coli bacterium. Their electrons are anywhere from 100-1000 times further away from the nucleus than they should be. At these distances, the electrons become ‘super electronically excited’, which allows them to act like a lasso, grabbing nearby atoms and forming weak interactions with them.

The researchers created the molecules by super cooling Rubidium gas to a just above absolute zero, before exciting them into their Rydberg state using lasers. They then kept the atoms under observation, looking for changes in the frequency of light that they would absorb, as this would show that a bond had been formed. Eventually they discovered that they had indeed triggered the formation of these butterfly molecules.

But why should you be excited about this discovery? After all, it’s just another type of dull chemical bond that kids will be forced to learn about, right? Actually, there is a lot of excitement around Rydberg molecules and how they might be used in nanotechnology and small scale electronics to make them much more efficient. There are even hopes that they might be used in quantum computing, pushing technology even more into the future!

Undergraduate Science Research Experience

Gregor Lawrence

Science is a great thing to learn about; a desire to understand the world around us is engrained into everyone, so it’s no surprise that you’ll be reading this. You want to learn something new.

But how do we come to know the things that we learn about in schools, universities, documentaries, science blogs, and so on?

People dedicate their lives to researching particular areas of interest so that they can contribute their little piece of the jigsaw to the huge, unsolved puzzle that is our universe. Their findings can have great implications and help to address the growing list of global issues we’re faced with today.

Maybe you’re content with learning something that people already knew, or maybe you want to be part of the investigative process and learn new things on behalf of everyone else. Maybe you want to be an expert in your little niche. Postgraduate study and research jobs in industry or academic institutions could be the path for you in life.

Being a successful scientific researcher requires a lot of experience and dedication over an entire career. It can also take a long time for findings to be fully understood or acknowledged, with the average age of Nobel Prize winners since 2001 being a ripe 66.

The key issue here is experience – deciding to pursue an MSc, a PhD, or a job that involves a substantial research project could be a step into the unknown if you haven’t yet experienced any scientific research.

Undergraduate lab sessions usually aim to educate students about basic techniques and practices used in research and don’t give much insight into how to plan, execute and review an entire project independently.

In order to gain this understanding, you must find a way to experience research beyond your degree. Many academic institutions now offer undergraduate research experience schemes that allow students to spend a few weeks working on a project, usually during the summer holidays.


One issue for students is that this time could otherwise be spent earning money to be able to afford their education, and so these schemes can offer a bursary (through the institutions themselves or organisations such as the Wellcome Trust) to cover living costs and help prevent the smashing of emergency piggy banks.

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Photo Credit: University of Sheffield

I took part in one such scheme this year – the Sheffield Undergraduate Research Experience (SURE). It started with an email to an academic who had given a pH7 talk on science communication that I attended, Professor Allan Pacey. His research into male fertility interested me and he was very engaging in the way he communicated science, and so I knew that I would enjoy working with him. I expressed an interest in gaining experience in his labs, and together we sent off an application to the SURE administrators.

I was accepted onto the scheme and undertook a 6-week summer placement in the University’s Academic Unit of Reproductive Health and Medicine, assisting an MSc student, Anna Poptsi, in her investigation into the effect of sexual lubricants on sperm function.

During the project, I assisted in mounting specimens onto microscope slides and staining them for observation under a fluorescent microscope to determine if the sperm cells had undergone DNA damage, tyrosine phosphorylation or acrosome reaction. These are markers to determine if the sperm cells are competent to fertilise an egg and therefore allow us to evaluate the effect of different lubricants on the samples.

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Credit: Gregor Lawrence/Anna Poptsi

I became more independent as I got more comfortable with the work I was undertaking, leaving Anna to work on other aspects of the project and speed up the process with deadlines looming.

I was taught useful lab techniques and saw that there needed to be a fine balance between the time spent planning for experiments and in the lab carrying them out. Things in life generally tend not to follow your best-laid plans, and this is definitely no different with a lab coat on and pipette in-hand. Biological matter can be notoriously temperamental and there are many opportunities for errors to be made in the multi-step processes involved in such a project.

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Credit: Gregor Lawrence/Anna Poptsi


There is a need to be able to identify and iron out any errors that may affect the findings of a research project, and this can only be done by experiencing these errors first hand in the lab. I also saw that research requires a decisive attitude, as sheer persistence could only serve to waste valuable time and resources.

The SURE scheme allowed me to apply my knowledge of Biomedical Science in a practical manner and gain a better understanding of how the world of research works. I was able to network with other researchers and attend departmental meetings, symposiums and seminars to further my experience with the scientific community. The scheme also enabled me to share these experiences with other undergraduate researchers across different faculties, with a showcase of all the projects scheduled for early next year.

Undergraduate research experience schemes are an excellent opportunity to experience research first-hand and find out where your interests really lie. My own experience has equipped me with the confidence to plan and carry out other research projects in future and has already been hugely beneficial in the third year of my studies.

I have now transferred onto the Integrated Master’s degree in Biomedical Science and although I may not want to pursue a PhD or a career in scientific research, I have gained and demonstrated many transferable skills that could give me a competitive edge over other graduates when applying for jobs in the future.

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Photo Credit: Gregor Lawrence

Even if you’re not entirely sure that the world of research is for you, undergraduate research experience allows you to explore new areas of science and will open doors as you look to build a career after graduating.