Cognitive Vaccination: How Tetris Knocks PTSD on the Head

New research has shown that a blast at the computer game Tetris in the wake of a traumatic experience could hold the key to preventing post traumatic stress disorder (PTSD).
16 November 2010


For many, Tetris spelled out a mis-spent youth when study was supplanted by the thumb-achingly endless endeavour of tesselating coloured shapes. But now new research has shown that a blast at Tetris in the wake of a traumatic experience could hold the key to preventing post traumatic stress disorder (PTSD).

Writing in PLoS One, Oxford University scientistPTSD Flashbacks: Influence of Tetris Emily Holmes and her colleagues reason that, based on what we know about psychology, the brain treats visual and verbal memories differently. So it might be possible, by using some sort distraction, to prevent harrowing visual memories of the stressful event being consolidated in visual memory, a process which takes about 6 hours.

On the other hand, sitting down in the immediate aftermath to talk about the event, which is the mainstay of current post-traumatic prophylaxis, is unlikely to be of any benefit. In fact, current studies suggest that such "debriefings" can actually make the situation worse.

To test their theory, that visual rather than verbal tasks can block the establishment of PTSD, the researchers asked 60 subjects to watch a gory film sequence containing scenes of injury and death. After a 30 minute rest period they were then randomly assigned to play Tetris, play a word-based computer game, Pub Quiz, or sat quietly.

The subjects then kept a diary over the subsequent seven days logging the number of times they experienced a "flashback" to the gory film. A second experiment was also conducted with a further 75 volunteers to test what would happen if a 4 hour delay were introduced between the film experience and playing the computer game.

The results were clear. Subjects assigned to the visually-arresting Tetris game had half as many reported flashbacks as the controls, while volunteers who took part in the word-dominated Pub Quiz computer game had 50% more flashbacks than the controls. This shows that it's not just playing a game that's important to the prvention of the PTSD, but the specific presence of a visual distraction.

This, the team suggest, blocks the transfer of the stress-associated experiences into long-term memory, function as, in the words of the researchers "a cognitive vaccine". The fact that is it effective when delivered some hours after the event suggests that it could be used effectively in real-world situations.


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