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PTSD Flashbacks Reduced By Playing Tetris

tetris Playing Tetris Cuts Flashbacks in PTSDFlashbacks are vivid, recurring, intrusive, and unwanted mental images of a past traumatic experience. They are a sine qua non of post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). Although drugs and cognitive behavioral interventions are available to treat PTSD, clinicians would prefer to utilize some sort of early intervention to prevent flashbacks from developing in the first place. 

Well, researchers at Oxford University appear to have found one. Remarkably, all it takes is playing Tetris. Yes, Tetris!

The team responsible for the discovery was led by Emily Holmes. The writeup appears in the November issue of PLoS ONE. Holmes and colleagues had reasoned that the human brain has a limited capacity to process memories, and that memory consolidation following a traumatic experience is typically complete within six hours after the event. Holmes’ team also knew that playing Tetris involved the same kind of mental processing as that involved with flashback formation. So they figured if they had people play Tetris during that six-hour window after the traumatic event, it might interfere with memory consolidation of the traumatic experience. That, in turn, would reduce or eliminate the flashbacks. The idea worked like a charm.

The experiment: Holmes’ team had 40 subjects watch a 12-minute film depicting traumatic scenes of injury and death, and then randomized the group to either play the classic video game after the movie ended, or to sit there and do nothing. The groups were similar with respect to age, gender and pre-existing psychological makeup.

Subjects in both groups kept track of any flashbacks for a week using a diary. Then, they underwent a formal clinical assessment and various memory tests.

The scientists observed that Tetris appeared to act like a “cognitive vaccine.” Subjects who played the game after watching the movie had fewer flashbacks during follow-up. Amazingly, the Tetris players’ memory of the movie and the associated trauma was the same as the control group. They just had fewer flashbacks.

Extra credit: To elucidate the mechanisms behind Tetris’ beneficial impact, Holmes’ group performed a follow-up study comparing Tetris with Pub Quiz in a head-to-head matchup. The latter computer game has different mental processing demands than Tetris, and it turned out to actually increase the frequency of flashbacks and other PTSD symptoms.

The authors hypothesized that discussions and debriefing sessions, which constitute the traditional therapeutic intervention in the immediate (that is, within six hours) aftermath of a traumatic experience may actually do more harm than good. That’s because these interventions may actually enhance memory consolidation of the traumatic event.

*This blog post was originally published at Pizaazz*

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3 Responses to “PTSD Flashbacks Reduced By Playing Tetris”

  1. liz4cps says:

    It’s also possible that Tetris merely makes it easier to suppress the memories and that they could come back later. I am also concerned that experiencing trauma and then not remembering it clearly could leave the victim unable to process it later.

  2. Glenn Laffel says:

    It sounds wierd but the scientists actually found subjects who played Tetris were able to recall the traumatic event just as clearly and vividly as those in the control group. But that’s voluntary recall.

    What Tetris did was reduce flasbacks, which are unwanted, involuntary recollections. All in all, this was a positive study. It requires validation and further f/u.

  3. At last – clinical evidence that my Tetris-playing addiction might actually be good for me!

    This study immediately got my attention when I first read about it, but not for its use in “memory consolidation” after violence/combat trauma, but for heart attack survivors like me.

    Emerging research (reported in the British Journal of Health Psychology, for example) has suggested that as many as 16% of cardiac survivors actually meet clinical criteria for acute PTSD, and a further 18% report moderate to severe PTSD symptoms. A heart attack has been described not as an external trauma, but as the “trauma within”.

    So if “distractor tasks” such as playing an obsessively distracting computer puzzle game like Tetris can successfully help to treat PTSD in those affected by combat exposure, could playing Tetris also help heart attack survivors?

    Earlier studies have suggested that a therapy called Eye Movement Desensitization and Reprocessing (EMDR) while trying to retrieve disturbing images about past events in the treatment of PTSD may also help reduce the images’ vividness and emotionality.

    Again, the theory is that this may be due to both tasks competing for working memory resources.

    More on this at: “Having a Heart Attack? Call 911 – And Pack Your Tetris Game” at HEART SISTERS:

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