Nov. 10, 2010 -- Who would have thought that mindlessly stacking geometric shapes into straight, even lines on a computer game could actually have some deep psychological benefits for trauma victims?
According to scientists at Oxford University, playing Tetris (yes, that Tetris) after traumatic events could help reduce painful flashbacks similar to those associated with post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD).
At first glance, the classic 1980s computer game seems fairly simple: players are challenged to evenly stack blocks of different shapes and sizes as they move slowly down the computer screen. For players the mindless simplicity is what help boost the game's popularity.
But Emily Holmes, the study's lead researcher at Oxford University's Department of Psychiatry, said the image-driven nature of the game gives it a kind of anti-flashback property.
Tetris, the classic puzzle game developed in the mid-1980s, challenges players to evenly stack blocks of different shapes and sizes. Emily Holmes, the study's lead researcher at Oxford University's Department of Psychiatry, said her team thinks that the image-driven nature of the game is what contributes to the flashback reduction effect.
"We think it works because it's competing with resources with the same kind of visual memory that would otherwise make a visual flashback, because flashbacks themselves are strong images," she said.
In a previous study involving Tetris, Holmes and her team showed that the game could reduce flashbacks when played by a healthy volunteer after a traumatic event.
But Holmes said that this new study sheds more light on why games like Tetris could help alleviate PTSD symptoms.
In the recent study, published in this week's issue of the journal PLoS ONE, the scientists asked 60 healthy volunteers to watch a video featuring traumatic images, including clips highlighting the dangers of drunk driving.
After waiting 30 minutes, 20 volunteers played Tetris for 10 minutes, 20 volunteers played the word-based game Pub Quiz Machine 2008 for the same amount of time and 20 volunteers did nothing.
The researchers found that those who played Tetris after the video experienced fewer flashbacks than those who did nothing, while those who played Pop Quiz Machine experienced more flashbacks than those who did nothing.
In another experiment in the study, the researchers asked volunteers to wait four hours before playing the games. But they still witnessed similar results -- those who played Tetris had significantly fewer flashbacks than the other groups.
"With the first study, you could have just said any game was distracting away from the traumatic film and therefore people got less flashbacks," Holmes said. "This one showed that actually another game that people enjoyed just as much didn't have that kind of beneficial effect, which suggests that different types of tasks can have different impacts on later flashback-type memories."
Verbal Video Games Could Worsen Flashbacks, Study Finds
Because games like Tetris use the parts of the brain responsible for visual attention and visual memory, which also contribute to flashbacks, they may reduce flashbacks, she said.
But verbal games, which compete with the resources in the brain that remember the contextual meaning of the trauma, may reinforce visual memories in the perceptual channel, the researchers said.
"It may be that a verbal general knowledge game may be impairing people's ability to make sense, as it were, of the traumatic film information, which accordingly to clinical psychology models of trauma memory, would serve to worsen flashbacks," Holmes said.
Ultimately, the researchers said, their findings could be used to actually help patients with PTSD, but they emphasized that they need to develop their work further before it can be tested clinically.
"What I'm really interested in as an experimental scientist is understanding human memory and how we could help modulate it in a positive way. And I think what's most exciting at the moment is we're trying to understand this rare kind of, as it were, pop-out memory – memories that come into mind when you don't want them to by studying films," Holmes said. "Eventually, with enough research, yes, it's exactly the kind of basic science that should lead to clinical translation but we're not there yet."