By Jennifer Copley (Last Updated 9 January 2009)
Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) results from experiencing or witnessing traumatic events such as danger, threat, serious injury, or death. Terrifying flashbacks, a symptom of PTSD, usually involve vivid, intrusive visual and auditory impressions through which sufferers relive the sights and sounds of the event.
There Are No Effective Treatments to Prevent PTSD
Existing PTSD treatments work only after the disorder is well-established, but playing the video game Tetris may reduce the likelihood of PTSD flashbacks occurring in the first place. As such, it may be possible to provide a “cognitive vaccine” shortly after the experience of trauma that would protect against flashbac
ks. This would be extremely beneficial, given the large numbers of people experiencing natural disasters, wars, terrorism, and personal violence around the world.
Playing Tetris May Protect Against PTSD Flashbacks
In a recent study conducted by Holmes et al. (2009), researchers had healthy male and female volunteers watch a traumatic film, which included images of horrible injuries and deaths from numerous sources, such as anti-drunk-driving advertisements. Thirty minutes later, the experimental group played the video game Tetris for 10 minutes while a control group sat quietly, doing nothing. Over the following week, subjects kept a diary of flashback experiences.
The two groups scored similarly on measures of mood and trait anxiety prior to the study, and after watching the film, participants in both groups suffered a deterioration in mood, indicating that they had been psychologically affected by the experience. However, over the next seven days, the Tetris group suffered far fewer flashbacks. They also scored significantly lower on the Impact of Events Scale, which measures trauma symptoms, but scored as highly as the control group on a test of memory recognition, indicating that they had not forgotten the film.They could recall elements of the film by choice, but were not subjected to as many involuntary traumatic sensory experiences.
Tetris May Interfere with Aspects of Memory Formation
Prior research suggests that there are two channels through which memories are formed:
- Sensory, which records perceptual experiences
- Conceptual, which creates meaning from those experiences
There is a short window of opportunity directly after events have occurred during which the brain’s attempts to store memories are subject to interference. This window lasts for approximately six hours after an event. Playing Tetris, with its brightly coloured moving shapes, may disrupt some aspects of memory retention by interfering with the sensory channel without robbing individuals of the ability to derive meaning from their experiences.
Because Tetris is an interactive game, players are fully engaged with the new visuospatial elements, leaving fewer cognitive resources available to deal with other sensory information. The idea that certain visuospatial tasks compete for limited cognitive resources is supported by the fact that Eye Movement Desensitization and Reprocessing (EMDR), a treatment for PTSD in which patients make rapid eye movements while experiencing traumatic imagery in their minds, is has proven effective in reducing the vividness of PTSD flashbacks.
Not all distractions will prevent or diminish PTSD flashbacks. Prior research has found that counting backwards or engaging in verbal tasks while watching traumatic material can actually increase the incidence of flashbacks. This indicates that distraction alone is not sufficient to lower the incidence traumatic flashbacks; rather, it requires specific types of visuospatial distraction.
Traumatic Memories Are Not Eliminated
Although they suffered fewer traumatic flashbacks, the Tetris players retained the ability to remember elements in the film. This is important because trauma victims may not wish to lose access to their memories, and they might also need to testify in court. In such cases, it would not be desirable to eliminate traumatic memories completely. The Tetris approach appears to diminish the debilitating, uncontrollable aspects of PTSD while allowing recall by choice if desired, and it does not have the side effects associated with common pharmacological interventions.
More Research Is Required
While the results of this study are intriguing and suggest new approaches to crisis intervention in the future, more research is required to determine whether playing Tetris is a viable way to prevent PTSD flashbacks after traumatic events. It is also unknown whether other video games might have the same effect, and this would be an interesting basis for future studies.
This article is provided for informational purposes only and is not intended as a substitute for medical advice. Those who have mental or physical health concerns should consult a medical professional.
Reference: Holmes E.A., James, E.L., Coode-Bate, T., Deeprose, C. (2009) “Can Playing the Computer Game ‘Tetris’ Reduce the Build-Up of Flashbacks for Trauma? A Proposal from Cognitive Science.” PLoS ONE 4(1): e4153.