Can Tetris Prevent Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder?
Traumatic experiences can lead to intrusive memories that haunt you for a long time. Researchers have found one approach
A recent study looked at the possibility of reducing post-traumatic stress disorder using the computer game, Tetris. While this might seem fantastic at first glance, let’s take a closer look at their reasoning and their findings.
Traumatic experiences are typically remembered in some visual and spatial way. The images of the event are reconstructed later by your brain as ‘flashbacks’ that can be triggered by some similar environment, a noise, a smell, or sometimes nothing at all. However, these images aren’t acquired by your brain immediately. There seems to be about a 6 hour time window following the event when the memories are consolidated and stored.
This is the first fact that researchers and clinicians can possibly take advantage of. If you can somehow disrupt those memories from forming in the 6 hour window, you might be able to dampen any long-term harm, or even prevent it. In fact, strategies have been used to do this, often using drugs that temporarily interfere with the brain’s chemistry and prevent memory formation.
The problem with this approach is that it can make all memories of the event unreliable. Sometimes having such memory can be beneficial. First, it can help prevent exposure to such events in the future. Second, you may need those memories to aid the prosecution in a criminal case. So what other approaches could researchers try?
Enter Tetris. Tetris is a visual-spatial game so uses the some of the same brain resources used to encode memories of a traumatic event. This was the reasoning behind trying to use it as way to interfere with traumatic memory consolidation. So did it work?
Researchers took 2 groups of healthy adults and showed them real videos of violence and death, which is a standard psychological tool to mimic exposure to trauma. After the videos, half the participants did nothing, while the other half played Tetris for ten minutes. Then throughout the next week participants were asked to keep track of any flashbacks they had relating to the violent and disturbing video exposure.
The Tetris player group had less than half the flashbacks of the non-player group, suggesting that playing Tetris interfered with their ability to consolidate the traumatic memories. But here’s the cool part. There was no difference between the groups in their ability to remember things about the videos. This means that the emotional impact of the experience was dampened, but the ability to recall facts about the experience was not.
Now, this study is not claiming that they can cure post-traumatic stress disorder by having soldiers or victims of violence play a little Tetris after a traumatic experience, although it may help a little. However, the study opens up the potential to develop new methods for helping victims of violence better cope in their future.
Current methods, including debriefing, can sometimes amplify the experience and actually make it worse, so psychologists are looking for new tools and this study may help lead to them.
In the short-term, maybe you should encourage your kids to wind down with a little Tetris after a hard battle playing Call of Duty:)
Reference: PLOS One, 2009, 4(1) e4153
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ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Dr. Simon Evans is a brain scientist at the University of Michigan interested in lifestyle approaches to brain health and fitness. He is the author of BrainFit for Life: A User's Guide to Life-Long Brain Health and Fitness. Visit his website at http://www.brainfitforlife.com