Skip to main content

Treating Trauma With 'Tetris'

Neuroscientists say the timeless video game's challenging visual and spatial attributes may block unwanted memories.
(Photo: mik ulyannikov/Shutterstock)

(Photo: mik ulyannikov/Shutterstock)

Memory reconsolidation—the method that involves re-exposing a patient to a past memory and then updating it while in this allegedly malleable state—has potentially major implications for people who suffer from PTSD flashbacks. But proposed methods for implementation haven't been so sensitive to traumatized individuals. Clinical trials for propranolol have seen mixed results, and electro-convulsive therapy could potentially re-traumatize the very people it's trying to treat.

But now, research appears to have landed on an effective, even enjoyable, reconsolidation regimen—playing Tetris. In a new study published in Psychological Science, researchers from the Universities of Cambridge and Oxford and Sweden's Karolinska Institutet present evidence that the '80s-era tile game can diminish the frequency of traumatic flashbacks if played after re-experiencing original, traumatic memories.

Much has been written about virtual reality treatments for PTSD, but Tetris, too, has been proven to provide healing effects. A 2010 study called the block-building game a "cognitive vaccine" against flashbacks and found that, when played within six hours of a traumatizing event, it could prevent emotionally disruptive memories from solidifying in the brain. As a visuospatial game, Tetris may compete for the same memory resources that scenic, sensory, and traumatic memories utilize.

It turns out playing Tetris after re-experiencing trauma significantly reduces the frequency of flashbacks.

The researchers behind this study were slightly more realistic about the aftermath of an emotional upheaval. After a truly traumatizing event, they surmised, it's unlikely a victim would feel like playing a digital block-building game. Moreover, the six-hour time frame in which traumatic memories can supposedly be somewhat suppressed presents a hurdle to trauma victims without access to health care (or an Internet connection). The researchers focused on Tetris' ability to interfere with a traumatic memory once it had already solidified in victims’ minds and could be re-activated and rendered vulnerable once more.

To test their hunch, they screened a 12-minute film of disturbing sequences for participants. Memories were "re-activated" the next day by looking at stills from the film, which focused on people who were injured, dying, or otherwise in peril. Following a 10-minute break, re-traumatized participants either played Tetris or enjoyed a different respite from the emotional assault. (A second experiment added two more control groups to the mix: one that played Tetris without seeing stills from the film, and another that only saw stills.) Over the next week, participants recorded how often they experienced movie-related "intrusive" memories. On the final day they took a recognition test to determine how much they remembered.

It turns out playing Tetris after re-experiencing trauma significantly reduces the frequency of flashbacks. Participants who played Tetris reported "substantially" fewer flashbacks than than all the other groups. Interestingly, all groups showed equal ability to recognize the images from the terrorizing movie. This indicates, the researchers said, that "trauma-film memory had not been erased but ceased intruding involuntarily."

Obviously, a movie can't provide a solid proxy for true trauma. But this study offers a potentially more inclusive solution for trauma victims who don't have the means or the ability to seek immediate treatment after an inciting incident. After all, Tetris is free.

Quick Studies is an award-winning series that sheds light on new research and discoveries that change the way we look at the world.