The Tetris Effect

My Tetris Effect Moment

I was at an airport in Texas waiting for a shuttle to take me to my hotel. When a white bus pulled up with the words “Homestead Hilton” painted on the side, I entered the van. To my chagrin I discovered that there is more than one Hilton in town and I was on the wrong bus. The driver dropped me off at the next terminal and thankfully the correct Hilton bus pulled up a few minutes later.

It made me think about what scientists call the Tetris Effect. People who play the Tetris game for a prolonged time, tend to see shapes organizing themselves in the buildings along the street or among the boxes on the supermarket shelves. They don’t just imagine it. They actually see it. Scientists understand that our memory places images in our brain and tricks us into thinking that we are seeing them.

It is a cognitive afterimage. Sometimes after seeing a bright light, our vision fills with green or blue dots. The light that filled our field of vision lingers in our cognitive vision so, we literally see light-dots, an afterimage, everywhere we look. Similarly, when we fill our brains with Tetris, we literally see shapes rearranging themselves everywhere we look.

Scientists believe this is why some people are inclined to impute negative motive to what others do and say. People, who were hurt in their youth, might hear and see rejection in every casual comment. No amount of reassurance can convince them that they were not being rejected. People who train their brain to think negatively, complain about the weather when it is hot and when it is cold. When we train our brain to think that way, we literally see the world that way.

The upshot is that we see what we expect to see; what we train ourselves to see. If my brain is anxiously awaiting and fully expecting to see a Hilton bus, it will see the Hilton on any white bus that shows up. If my memory is trained to see flowers, I will see flowers in every garbage dump. If my memory is trained to see garbage, I will see garbage in every botany.[1]

The Spies

When our ancestors were poised to enter the Holy Land, they asked Moses to dispatch spies to scout the land. Moses was disappointed with this request. From his point of view, they should have trusted G-d to fulfill His promise and deliver the land to them. Yet, Moses felt that if he were to turn them down, they would suspect him of hiding some terrible secret about the land. So, instead, Moses responded with a lavish affirmative. He hoped the people would realize that he had nothing to hide, and would thus be reassured. Yet, instead of imputing positive motive to his response, they took it the other way. They assumed that Moses was also concerned about Israel, and they hastened to send spies.

When the spies arrived in Israel, they found that wherever they went, the locals were preoccupied with mourning and grieving. G-d orchestrated the timing of these deaths to coincide with the spies’ clandestine visit so that they would not be molested by the local populace. But the spies did not see it that way. They came away with the impression that Israel is a strange land that kills its inhabitants.

The spies were surprised by the gargantuan size of the produce in Israel. They even brought back several examples to show the people. But rather than rejoicing over the land’s fertility, they interpreted it negatively. The land produces unnaturally. Its fruits are outsized and so are its people. We can never defeat their powerful warriors and numerous armies.

They took a negative view of life because they projected unto others the negative view they had of themselves. When they returned from Israel, they reported seeing great giants, to whom the spies were like little grasshoppers. They reported that they actually heard the giants say so, but they prefaced their remark with a telltale sign of the Tetris Effect. They said, “Compared to them, we felt like grasshoppers, and that is precisely how they saw us.”

This line gives it away. It helps us understand precisely why they were pre-dispositioned to perceive life negatively. They came to Israel feeling inferior. They did not expect to find positive self-affirming information. They were conditioned to see the worst in everything. They felt like grasshoppers and no matter what the giants would have said, they would have seen or heard this negative message. They trained their brains to think this way and therefore saw and heard it wherever they looked. Thus, when they heard the giants say these words, they had all the proof they would ever need.

In Life

Judaism teaches us a cardinal rule: “Whatever G-d does is for the good.” There are times when we experience what seems like a tragedy, only to discover that it was a blessing in disguise. But no matter how many times we discover the silver lining, we rarely view our tragedies in a positive light. We are always quick to treat bad news as the norm, and good news as the anomaly.

But if you think about the Tetris Effect, you will realize that this is not an objective portrayal of reality. It is a subjective interpretation based on our own expectations and inclinations. We have trained ourselves to expect the worst and therefore we see it. We fill in gaps in our understanding with negative spins on life’s experiences without even realizing that we are spinning it.

Once you realize this, you realize something else. If it is possible to train the brain to interpret things negatively, it is also possible to train the brain to interpret things positively. If we accustom ourselves to looking for the silver lining in each cloud and to expect the best out of life, we will begin to see life that way. Nothing will change in real life, but our understanding and interpretation will change. The very events that we interpreted negatively, will become powerfully positive experiences. Think of the positive impact on our emotional wellbeing and psychological disposition. Think of the health benefit to us and to those around us. We will be a pleasure to be with because life will have become a pleasure.


The coming of Mashiach has been promised for thousands of years, and has still not materialized. To many, this sad fact has given rise to a tragic lack of faith in his coming. If he has not come for so many years, he likely won’t come any time soon. But when you think of the Tetris Effect you realize that this is a psychological murmuring spurred by a lifetime of failed expectations. Past negative experiences train us to expect future negative experiences.

There was one man in my life, who taught me to think differently. Rabbi Menachem Mendel Schneerson, the Lubavitcher Rebbe OBM exuded positive energy. His personal life was filled with strife. He was separated from his parents by the iron curtain. He was persecuted by the Nazis and barely escaped with his life. In addition, he was not blessed with children. Yet, despite the many hardships in his personal life, he never allowed it to dictate his expectation of the future. He trained his brain to see the silver lining in every cloud and taught us to do the same.

When he talked of Mashiach he made the statement simply, but forcefully: If he has not come for thousands of years, how much more so should we expect him imminently. Mashiach has fallen behind schedule. He is surely rushing to make up for lost time. And he will surely be here before long. After all, it won’t take long. He can be here in the blink of an eye.

[1] Shawn Achor, The Happiness Advantage, Crown Business, NY, 2010, p. 64.

About the Author
Rabbi Lazer Gurkow, a renowned lecturer, serves as Rabbi to Congregation Beth Tefilah in London Ontario. He is a member of the curriculum development team at Rohr Jewish Learning Institute and is the author of two books and nearly a thousand online essays. You can find his work at
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