Playing Tetris Could Help Prevent Traumatic Memories From Forming, Study Suggests

Scientists hope to help patients cope with memories of trauma.

ByABC News
July 8, 2015, 5:27 PM
Tetris is played at Barcade in the Brooklyn borough of New York, May 22, 2009.
Tetris is played at Barcade in the Brooklyn borough of New York, May 22, 2009.
Mark Lennihan/AP Photo

— -- In the search to help trauma victims through painful memories and flashbacks, researchers in the U.K. are investigating if a simple computer game like Tetris might be helpful.

Researchers based at the University of Cambridge, the University of Oxford and Sweden's Karolinska Institutet examined subjects who had seen video footage of real traumatic events, including deadly accidents, and then had some of them play Tetris as a way to help them clear their mind of traumatic images.

The goal was to diminish “intrusive” memories associated with the trauma, researchers said, noting these memories can include paralyzing flashbacks that cannot be controlled.

In the experiment, those who played Tetris 24 hours after seeing a film containing disturbing video footage of real traumatic incidents -- including a car accident and a drowning -- reported fewer “intrusive” memories in the days after their first viewing.

The researchers theorized that playing the game re-configures the visual memory, as the brain focuses on both the visual game and memory of the film.

"From Marcel Proust’s example of sudden childhood recall after eating a madeleine to flashbacks depicted in war films, involuntary memory has long held fascination,” researchers said in the study, published this month in the journal Psychological Science. "The current work bridges a clinical area of public concern (trauma viewing) with animal and human neuroscience.”

The study authors admit that the study was limited since seeing a traumatic image on TV is far different from experiencing it, but theorize these early experiments may be able to be replicated in the future with people who had recently undergone traumatic experiences.

Jaine Darwin, a Massachusetts-based psychologist who specializes in trauma and crisis intervention, said the study is interesting but she remains skeptical that it could be applied to people who had survived an actual trauma.

“If you watch a horror movie, you can get scared for days,” Darwin told ABC News. “[But] you lack the smell or tactile association,” of the event.

She said in situations where people view trauma on a screen, psychologists simply recommend turning off the TV or computer to get away from trauma and protect oneself from intrusive memories.

Darwin said it’s “good solid research and an interesting hypothesis,” but that it needs much more research and proof before it becomes applicable for patients. Currently, mental health professionals will work with a patient to help them separate themselves from the event so they can view and “digest” the trauma form a safe space, she noted.

“Memory in general is malleable and it changes over time,” Darwin said. “In long-term psychotherapy, [patients] construct a new narrative.”