Rethinking Healthcare

Playing Tetris could lessen PTSD symptoms

Posting in Science

Visual-spatial tasks help disrupt the formation of mental imageries involved in flashbacks. Though not a cure, the game could lessen other symptoms, including irritability and poor concentration.

Flashbacks and other psychological symptoms following a traumatic event may be reduced by playing the 1980s game.

Focusing on a highly engaging visual-spatial task to reduce the occurrence of intrusive mental images… trauma sufferers happened on this by chance, and science is now providing some evidence for it. Scientific American reports.

This particular symptom of post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) is known to exacerbate other symptoms, including irritability, anger, poor concentration and sleep disorders. And while video games can’t instantly cure PTSD, the work does suggest alternative treatments for the symptoms.

  1. The researchers, led by Emily Holmes of Oxford University, asked subjects to view a disturbing film. (This is an admittedly poor but sufficient simulation of real trauma.)
  2. Within 6 hours of the viewing – the period during which memories are thought to be consolidated for longterm storage – the subjects were randomly assigned one of 3 tasks: answering trivia, playing Tetris, or engaging in nothing in particular.
  3. Over the following week, subjects who played Tetris reported experiencing significantly fewer flashbacks of the film than the others did.

When played immediately following exposure to trauma, the game seemed to have a protective effect. The visual-spatial demands of Tetris might disrupt the formation of the mental imagery involved in flashbacks.

Study coauthor Ella James also of Oxford is following up: exploring whether Tetris may help trauma sufferers even after the memory has been sealed into longterm storage. Subjects in this study will be asked to recall the film a day after viewing it, and then play the game.

Oxford researchers have been looking into ‘Tetris therapy’ for years. In 2010, for example, they showed that playing Pub Quiz, a word based game, actually increased flashbacks.

The work was presented at the British Psychology Society Annual Conference this week.

[Via Scientific American]

Image: the Tetrominoes via Wikimedia

Janet Fang

Contributing Editor

Janet Fang has written for Nature, Discover and the Point Reyes Light. She is currently a lab technician at Lamont-Doherty Earth Observatory. She holds degrees from the University of California, Berkeley and Columbia University. She is based in New York. Follow her on Twitter. Disclosure