The popular tile-matching computer game Tetris might be more than an addictive pastime. Researchers from the University of Oxford in the U.K. and Karolinska Institutet in Sweden claim playing the game within hours of a serious car accident could help block some of the traumatic memories that haunt people who suffer from post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD).
In a new study published in the Molecular Psychiatry journal, researchers say people who played Tetris within six hours of a traumatic accident had fewer flashbacks in the following week than people who didn’t play the game.
After experiencing a traumatic event, such as a car accident, people can sometimes be haunted by memories of the event such as the shattering of glass or the image of a car slamming into a tree.
“It pops up in your daily life when you are not expecting … and it brings back sights and sounds, and emotions associated to the traumatic event,” co-author Emily Holmes of Karolinska Institutet told Global News.
To take the visual edge off the “intrusive memories” or flashbacks, researchers gave a Nintendo DS to 71 patients in an emergency room at the John Radcliffe hospital in Oxford. All had been involved in car accidents. The patients were asked to think about the traumatic memories while they played Tetris for 20 minutes.
They then asked the volunteers to take notes the next week to see how many intrusive thoughts they had following the accident. The people who had played Tetris reported 62 per cent fewer memories on average over the week than those who didn’t play.
But what is it about Tetris that potentially caused these results?
“You have to use your mind’s eye very actively to pay attention to how you can play the game and get a high score. Tetris is visual, highly absorbing and readily available,” Homes said.
“You can’t both hold the image of trauma and the image of Tetris in your mind at once. The Tetris is taking that overly hyper sort of real quality out of the trauma images.”
Holmes says she and her team hope to do a larger study for longer times to see the long-term effects of the intervention as well as whether they can help patients improve over time. At the moment, they are still in the research stage and hope to one day create a prevention method for those at risk of PTSD.
“It would be wonderful to have something whilst people are waiting after a traumatic event in the emergency room. But it’s too early to recommend the treatment now.”
Homes says it’s important to take a different approach in dealing with PTSD. At the moment, it’s all about treating it instead of preventing it.
“You cannot diagnose PTSD until one month after an event. But what we don’t have at the moment, we don’t have anything to offer people soon after traumas happen.”
“At least a one-fifth of drivers in a traumatic car accident are going to develop PTSD. So we are just waiting for that fifth to get ill. So wouldn’t it be really interesting and helpful for us to try to help and prevent the development of the mental health disorder?”