Friday, 15 February 2008

Tetris sickness and insomnia

I’ve had insomnia all my adult life and I long ago gave up the fight against it. Trying to battle insomnia is utterly self-defeating: the more you want to sleep, and the more anxious you get about it, the less you can.

In a strange way my berserk sleep patterns have shaped my waking life. One of the reasons I’ve never been able to hold down a 9-to-5 office job is that at least a couple of times a week, often more, I stumble through a working day in a state that resembles drunkenness (without the attendant silly dancing). On these ‘off’ days I’m irritable and fuzzy-brained. I make lots of mistakes; I double- and triple-check all my work but even then I often miss obvious errors. In this exhausted condition I’m also very clumsy – I’ve learnt through electrifyingly nasty experience not to put my coffee cup on my desk next to my keyboard after a sleepless night.

My friend M recently lent me a book called Counting Sheep by Paul Martin (Flamingo, 2002). Not only did it tell me everything I’ve ever wanted to know about insomnia but didn’t know who to ask, plus tips for beating it (none of which have worked for me, but still), it also taught me all sorts of fascinating things about that undiscovered continent, the Land of Nod.

For instance, you’ll spend a total of about 25 years asleep during the course of your life. (And that partridges, like many birds, sleep on one leg – and that gourmets can tell which leg, by its taste.)

One of the most interesting titbits in the book for me, though, was about the effect of computer games on our drifting-off minds. ‘People who play lots of computer games sometimes experience ‘‘screen dreams’’ as they fall asleep,’ Martin writes, ‘in which they see vivid images of the game they have been playing.’


When the computer game Tetris first came out, my sister and I spent hours playing it. (Do you remember Tetris? It was that game where you had to twist and turn various falling geometric shapes to fit them together into an ever-rising landscape.) I had such vivid ‘screen dreams’ that I had to stop playing it – my ‘Tetris sickness’ (as my sister scathingly dubbed it) kept me awake.

I had a similar reaction when I learnt to touch-type. (A skill that I learnt at secretarial college – and one that made an otherwise appallingly boring and useless year worth every second.) For months I couldn’t sleep at night because as soon as I closed my eyes, I saw a keyboard and began mentally doing typing exercises.

From Counting Sheep I learnt that Tetris sickness isn’t unusual. A team of scientists at Harvard Medical School got volunteers to play Tetris for several hours, and many of them experienced ‘vivid dreams about Tetris as they fell asleep’.

Even more interesting, among the volunteers were five amnesiacs who had extensive brain damage in their temporal medial lobes, our conscious-memory brain regions. Three of the five had Tetris sickness as they drifted off to sleep, even though they had no conscious memory of having played the game!

Counting Sheep is, incidentally, a wonderful bedside book to have if you’re an insomniac…

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Audrey said...

I see the Jozi skyline, I play tetris with it. Gridlocked traffic makes for good tetris. A million maniacs dropping by the skin of their teeth into high-speed gaps on the freeway takes the game to a whole new level. I also do it with objects on my desk, and letters of the alphabet. Cutlery drawers, bookshelves, tables and chairs. Nothing is tetris-proof. It's debilitating. Possibly another tool unleashed by the aliens to wipe our minds out.

meggie said...

Sheesh! I just read Audrey's comment. I am not that bad, but I had the typing one, as I learnt to type as an adult. I also had it when I learned to crochet- every night I did it in my sleep!

Jodith said...

I do this with pretty much any game I play a lot least any game with fairly consistent graphics. I don't from playing MMO, but that's because the graphics are constantly changing. But pretty much most arcade games will do it if I play for a few hours. It doesn't keep me from falling asleep, though. I just see them as I'm falling asleep. And then I dream about them *laughs*.

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