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Tetris Could Help With Flashbacks

November 14, 2010

Researchers have found that the video game Tetris may reduce flashbacks or traumatic events in a way that other kinds of games cannot.

Tetris involves moving and rotating shapes falling down a playing field with the goal of creating horizontal lines of blocks without gaps.

Scientists at Oxford University in England found that playing Tetris after traumatic events could reduce flashbacks in healthy volunteers.  The hope of this research is to reduce the painful memories linked with post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD).

The researchers compared the game with Pub Quiz Machine 2008 to see if this effect was found only in Tetris or with other games as well.  The investigators began showing volunteers a gruesome film with traumatic images of injury and death, like fatal traffic accidents and graphic scenes of human surgery.

Twenty volunteers played Tetris for 10 minutes, while 20 played Pub Quiz and 20 others did nothing.  The researchers found that Tetris significantly reduced flashbacks while Pub Quiz significantly increased them. 

“Our latest findings suggest Tetris is still effective as long as it is played within a four-hour window after viewing a stressful film,” said researcher Emily Holmes, a research clinical psychologist at Oxford University. “Whilst playing Tetris can reduce flashback-type memories without wiping out the ability to make sense of the event, we have shown that not all computer games have this beneficial effect “” some may even have a detrimental effect on how people deal with traumatic memories.”

Past research has found that there is a timeframe of up to six hours after a trauma in which one can interfere with the way traumatic memories are formed in the mind.  Certain tasks can compete during this window of opportunity with the same mental channels needed to form those memories.

The Oxford team said that Tetris achieves its beneficial effects regarding flashbacks by competing with traumatic details on the sensory channel.  However, Pub Quiz might compete with the conceptual channel, reinforcing sensory details of traumatic events.

“These laboratory experiments can help us understand how unwanted flashback memories may be formed,” Holmes told LiveScience. “This can help us better understand this fundamental aspect of human memory. It may also lead us to think about new ways to develop preventative treatments after trauma.”

However, Holmes said: “Whist this work is still experimental, and any potential treatment is a long way off, we are beginning to understand how intrusive memories/flashbacks are formed after trauma, and how we can use science to explore new preventative treatments.”

The scientists reported their findings in the journal PLoS ONE on November 10.

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