Can Playing Tetris Block Traumatic Memories?

New research suggests that the engaging, visual-spatial nature of the game may disrupt the formation “intrusive memories”

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Traumatic events can cause people to experience "intrusive memories"—distressing recollections that occur without warning, summoning the sights, sounds and feelings connected to the painful incident. Such symptoms are often treated with psychotherapy. But, as Sarah Knapton reports for The Telegraph, a new study suggests that intrusive memories can be mitigated by a less conventional method: playing Tetris.

Yes, Tetris, the iconic puzzle video game with the earworm theme song. Researchers from Oxford University and the Karolinska Institute in Sweden studied a group of 71 patients who had been admitted to the emergency room of an Oxford hospital after experiencing a car accident. Half of the subjects were used as a control group. The rest were asked to recall the traumatic crash, and then play a 20-minute game of Tetris.

The study, published recently in the journal Molecular Psychiatry, found that patients who played Tetris within six hours of the crash experienced 62 percent fewer intrusive memories during the week following the incident compared to patients in the control group. Researchers wrote that the game acts as a “therapeutic vaccine” of sorts, appearing to prevent the formation of traumatic memories.

This isn't the first study to document the healing properties of Tetris. One of the lead authors of the study, Lalitha Iyadurai, clinical psychologist at the University of Oxford, was also part of a 2012 investigation of the game. As Robin Nixon wrote for Live Science at the time, Iyaduri and a team of scientists showed a disturbing film to a group of subjects. Within six hours of the viewing period, subjects were asked to either play Tetris, answer trivia, or do nothing at all. The subjects who played Tetris reported significantly fewer flashbacks of the film than those who did not.

As Nixon explained, it is believed that memories are “consolidated for long-term storage” within a period of six hours. If Tetris is played within that time frame, the game may be able to interrupt traumatic memories before they can form. And there seems to be something about the engaging, visual-spatial nature of Tetris that works particularly well when it comes to blocking intrusive memories. For reasons that are unclear, participants in the 2012 study who answered trivia questions reported the most flashbacks.

In the more recent study, researchers suggest that any visual spatial task—like drawing, or playing Candy Crush—can provide helpful interventions for trauma victims.

According to Knapton, researchers hope to conduct the trial on a larger subject group to determine if Tetris therapy has long-term benefits. Though this latest study was relatively small, it may have significant implications for the treatment of trauma victims. According to a press release, intrusive memories “can go hand in hand” with a number of psychological disorders, including acute stress disorder, post traumatic stress disorder, and depression. And Tetris may offer a simple, affordable way to treat the distressing memories before they occur. 

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