Happy Birthday Tetris!

Released on 6th of June 1984, Tetris is 30 years old today. Here’s a video where I try and explain something of the psychology of Tetris:

All credit for the graphics to Andrew Twist. What I say in the video is based on an article I wrote a while back for BBC Future.

As well as hijacking the minds and twitchy fingers of puzzle-gamers for 30 years, Tetris has also been involved in some important psychological research.

My favourite is Kirsh and Maglio’s work on “epistemic action“, which showed how Tetris players prefer to rotate the blocks in the game world rather than mentally. This using the world in synchrony with your mental representations is part of what makes it so immersive, I argue.

Other research has looked at whether Tetris’s hook on our visual imagery can be used to help people with PTSD flashbacks.

And don’t forget that Tetris was the control condition is Green and Bavelier’s now famous studies of how action video games can train visual attention

In my own research I’ve used simple games to explore skill learning. John Lindstedt and Wayne Gray at Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute have been pursuing a parallel line looking at expertise in Tetris players.

I’m sure there are more examples, if you know of any researching using Tetris let me know. Happy Birthday Tetris!

BBC Future column: why are we so curious?

My column for BBC Future from last week. The original is here.


Evolution made us the ultimate learning machines, and the ultimate learning machines need to be oiled by curiosity.

I hate to disappoint you, but whatever your ambitions, whatever your long-term goals, I’m pretty sure that reading this column isn’t going to further them. It won’t stop you feeling hungry. It won’t provide any information that might save your life. It’s unlikely to make you attractive to the opposite sex.

And yet if I were to say that I will teach you a valuable lesson about your inner child, I hope you will want to carry on reading, driven by nothing more than your curiosity to find out a little more. What could be going on in your brain to make you so inquisitive?

We humans have a deeply curious nature, and more often than not it is about the minor tittle-tattle in our lives. Our curiosity has us doing utterly unproductive things like reading news about people we will never meet, learning topics we will never have use for, or exploring places we will never come back to. We just love to know the answers to things, even if there’s no obvious benefit.

From the perspective of evolution this appears to be something of a mystery. We associate evolution with ‘survival-of-the-fittest’ traits that support the essentials of day-to-day survival and reproduction. So why did we evolve to waste so much time? Shouldn’t evolution have selected for a species which was – you know – a bit more focussed?


Child’s play

The roots of our peculiar curiosity can be linked to a trait of the human species call neoteny. This is a term from evolutionary theory that means the “retention of juvenile characteristics”. It means that as a species we are more child-like than other mammals. Being relatively hairless is one physical example. A large brain relative to body size is another. Our lifelong curiosity and playfulness is a behavioural characteristic of neoteny.

Neoteny is a short-cut taken by evolution – a route that brings about a whole bundle of changes in one go, rather than selecting for them one by one. Evolution, by making us a more juvenile species, has made us weaker than our primate cousins, but it has also given us our child’s curiosity, our capacity to learn and our deep sense of attachment to each other.

And of course the lifelong capacity to learn is the reason why neoteny has worked so well for our species. Our extended childhood means we can absorb so much more from our environment, including our shared culture. Even in adulthood we can pick up new ways of doing things and new ways of thinking, allowing us to adapt to new circumstances.


Exploration bonus
In the world of artificial intelligence, computer scientists have explored how behaviour evolves when guided by different learning algorithms. An important result is that even the best learning algorithms fall down if they are not encouraged to explore a little. Without a little something to distract them from what they should be doing, these algorithms get stuck in a rut, relying on the same responses time and time again.

Computer scientists have learnt to adjust how these algorithms rate different possible actions with an ‘exploration bonus’ – that is, a reward just for trying something new. Weighted like this, the algorithms then occasionally leave the beaten track to explore. These exploratory actions cost them some opportunities, but leave them better off in the long run because they’ve gain knowledge about what they might do, even if it didn’t benefit them immediately.

The implication for the evolution of our own brain is clear. Curiosity is nature’s built-in exploration bonus. We’re evolved to leave the beaten track, to try things out, to get distracted and generally look like we’re wasting time. Maybe we are wasting time today, but the learning algorithms in our brain know that something we learnt by chance today will come in useful tomorrow.

Obviously it would be best if we knew what we needed to know, and just concentrated on that. Fortunately, in a complex world it is impossible to know what might be useful in the future. And thank goodness – otherwise we would have evolved to be a deadly-boring species which never wanted to get lost, never tried things to just see what happened or did things for the hell of it.

Evolution made us the ultimate learning machines, and the ultimate learning machines need a healthy dash of curiosity to help us take full advantage of this learning capacity.

Or, as Kurt Vonnegut said, “We are here on Earth to fart around. Don’t let anybody tell you any different.”

Neurohacks column at BBC Future

The quite lovely BBC Future has launched (‘the home of new trends in the worlds of Science, Technology, Environment and Health’) and yours truly has a column there: Neurohacks (‘Neuroscience and the psychology of the everyday’). You can find it in the ‘Brain‘ section.

At this point any UK-based surfers who have followed the above links will be staring in frustration at a corporate holding page. BBC Future is only visible outside of the UK, due to it being funded by advertisements rather than our licence fee. Non-UK readers – hello! UK readers – despair not, there are workarounds.

At BBC Future I’ll be recruiting neuroscience and experimental psychology to help us understand conundrums and curiosities of everyday life. Things such as Why recalling names is so vexing (UK readers, try here) and questions like Do we all see the same colours?’ (UK readers).

Those are the topics of my first two columns, at least. I do take requests, incidentally, so if there is some phenomenon that has always bugged, or that you think neuroscience or psychology should be able to help with, get in touch (by email or twitter – see the right bar for details). I may be able to provide you with an entertaining and evidence-based answer.

Link: Neurohacks column at BBC Future

Check out the rest of BBC Future while you’re there. It’s a great clear site with a stellar cast of columnists.

Control your dreams (ebook)

Anyone can learn to have lucid dreams, and this ebook tells you how. Lucid dreams are those dreams where you become aware you are dreaming, and can even begin to control the reality of the dream. Adventure, problem-solving and consequence-free indulgence await! And for those interested in the mind, lucid dreams are a great place to explore the nature of their own consciousness. The ebook is written as a sort of travel guide, telling you what you need to take on your journey and what to expect when you start to lucid dream. It finishes off with a quick review of the scientific literature on lucid dreaming and links and references for further reading if you want to continue your exploration of lucid dreaming.

I wrote this with friend, and lucid dreamer, Cat Bardsley. My wife Harriet Cameron provided some beautiful illustrations which you can find throughout the book (and on the cover you can see here). The book is Creative Commons licensed so you can copy it and share it as you will, and even modify and improve (as long as you keep the CC licensing). It’s available on smashwords on a pay-what-you-want-basis (and that includes nothing, so it is yours for free if you’d like).

“Control your dreams” is my second self-published ebook. You can also get “Explore your blindspot” from smashwords (which is completely free, and also CC licensed). The wonderful folk at 40k books published my essay The Narrative Escape last year (and after doing all the formatting and admin associated with these two new ebooks I am more and more in awe of what they did).

Sweet Dreams!

Explore your blind spot (free ebook)

I’ve written an ebook called ‘Explore your blind spot’. It’s about, er, exploring your blind spot! In the best tradition of Mind Hacks I take you from the raw experience to the cutting edge of scientific theory. The blind spot is a simple phenomenon of our visual processing, but one we don’t notice day to day. In the ebook I talk about how it provides a great example of the way consciousness is constructed despite ‘missing’ information. Like the ebook subtitle says, the blind spot gives us an insight into the mind hides its own tracks.

The ebook is available in all major formats here and is creative commons licensed. That means it is free, not just to download but also to share. You can even edit it and pass on modified versions, as long as you keep it CC licensed.

I’ve written this book as an experiment in ebook publishing, and as a test-bed for what I think could be a good format for presenting open-source guides to the myriad interesting phenomena of psychology. If you’ve got feedback let me know.

Link to Explore your blind spot, a free ebook by Tom Stafford

The Rough Guide to Psychology

Friend of mindhacks.com and contributor to the original Mind Hacks book, Christian Jarrett has written the “The Rough Guide to Psychology“, published this month, and a right rip roaring read it is too. It’s a whistle-stop tour through all aspects of the science of mind and behaviour, which reveals just how diverse and rich the field of psychology is. From visual perception to intelligence testing, sport psychology and gender differences to developmental disorders – Christian is the consummate guide, introducing the scientific essentials, giving the history of psychological research and highlighting links to the everyday world of our own experiences. The reader gets the benefits of Christian’s unique skills – he’s a fully trained research scientist but also has the jackdaw curiosity of the science journalist, honed by the experience of writing for the BPS Psychologist magazine and Research Digest.

It isn’t possible to download knowledge in the way Keanu does in the Matrix (“I know kung-fu“), but reading the Rough Guide to Psychology feels like the next best thing. Wonderful breadth, impressive depth and fun throughout – the next time someone asks me for an introduction to Psychology I’ll give them this book.

Putting Psychology To Work

And Lo! Unto the always excellent BPS Research Digest, a child is born! The BPS Occupational Digest. is new blog which will cover news, reviews and reports on how psychology matters in the workplace. It will be curated by friend of mindhacks.com (and contributor to the Mind Hacks book) Alex Fradera.

Blogging hasn’t started yet at the BPS Occupational Digest, but we’re looking forward to what Alex serves up. Watch this space!

Link to BPS Occupational Digest.