The idea of fire-fighters, rape victims and car crash survivors being led away from their trauma to play the jigsaw-style video-game Tetris is surreal, but could soon become a reality. That’s because Emily Holmes and colleagues have shown that playing the game half an hour after watching traumatic scenes on video, led people to experience fewer flashbacks of those scenes.
We already have relatively effective treatments for post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), such as eye-movement desensitisation and reprocessing therapy and cognitive behavioural therapy. Holmes’ team, however, wanted to test a psychological intervention that might prevent the establishment of PTSD in the first place. To date, most research in this area has involved using drugs, like beta-blockers, to prevent the consolidation of traumatic memories, but these obviously have side-effects and could interfere with intentional memory recall, to the detriment, for example, of witness statements. Moreover, other research has shown that existing psychological interventions, such as debriefing right after a trauma, can actually cause harm.
The new study takes advantage of the fact that the shape arranging involved in the game Tetris requires the same visuo-spatial mental resources as flashbacks, together with the fact that new memories are known to be fragile for up to six hours before becoming fully consolidated.
Half an hour after watching scenes of surgery, drowning and traffic accidents, 40 participants were split into two groups: half played Tetris for ten minutes while the others just sat quietly.
During these ten minutes, the game-players reported fewer flashbacks to the movie scenes. Even more importantly, they also experienced fewer flashbacks during the whole of the following week, and also showed fewer clinical symptoms of trauma, than did the participants who just sat quietly. By contrast, both groups were equally capable of voluntarily recalling details from the film.
The researchers dubbed their intervention a “cognitive vaccine” and theorised that the game left conceptual processing of the scenes intact, but interfered with the sensory-perceptual processing of the scenes that can contribute to flashbacks.
Emily A. Holmes, Ella L. James, Thomas Coode-Bate, Catherine Deeprose (2009). Can Playing the Computer Game “Tetris” Reduce the Build-Up of Flashbacks for Trauma? A Proposal from Cognitive Science. PLoS ONE, 4 (1) DOI: 10.1371/journal.pone.0004153 (open access).