Tetris good for more than wasting time

ResearchBlogging.orgOk, I simply had to post about this new study from PLoS ONE because my boyfriend, Barry, absolutely loves the game Tetris. Anyhow, new research has found that Tetris can help treat PTSD flashbacks, which is pretty cool for a really old, really simple video game.

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Here's how it works. Your brain has limited resources and capacity. In other words, your brain can only process, remember and manage so much input at a time. When you see an image or perform a mental task, you have to put energy into it and resources. After witnessing a traumatic incident, part of your brain is allocating resources to that image, causing it to later reappear in flashbacks. So, hypothetically, if you could force that part of the brain to focus on something else, the flashbacks would lessen or completely stop.

Of course, this is easier said than done. Finding the right activity which can act as a 'cognative vaccine' for such events is not easy. After all, it has to be involved and stimulating enough to warrant the brain power allocated to the stressful event. And anyone who has had even a glimpse of the kind of stressful event that can cause PTSD knows that "forgettting" the trauma and focusing on something else isn't that easy.

Currently, vivid flashbacks are treated with psychiatry and drugs. However, the counseling often only occurs after a significant buildup of symptoms (like flashbacks) and the drugs don't just help rid you of flashbacks - they destroy your memory of the event all together. So if, say, you need to testify in court, you might have a problem. Some current methods of treatment have even been shown to worsen symptoms.

Researchers from Oxford may have found a better way. They say that since flashbacks are sensory-perceptual, visuospatial mental images that tend to implant in memory somewhere between 1-6 hours after an event, you can disrupt them from ever forming by providing other sensory-perceptual, visuospatial mental images during that time. Their choice? Tetris.

Tetris has been shown to occupy much of the same kind of memory that a flashback does. People even seem to 'relive' intense moments of Tetris play much later on - which, of course, I can totally vouch for. Who hasn't gone over and over 'if only I'd rotated that piece that way!'?

So the researchers exposed people to a violent film depicting death and injury, then had them play Tetris or just sit there. Afterwards, they sat alone for 10 minutes, and reported any flashbacks to the film. Tetris, it turned out, significantly reduced the number of flashbacks. The subjects continued reporting flashbacks over a week long period, and the Tetris players continued to experience fewer flashbacks. Later, when subjects were tested on the film, both groups performed equally, so Tetris didn't impair voluntary memory of the trauma, just involuntary.

Using this kind of 'cognitive vaccine' could reduce PTSD from all kinds of traumatic events, from fires to rape. Although, imagine, you walk out of a burning building, sit down, and the emergency worker hands you a DS to play for a few minutes before you're interviewed about the scene. It seems almost ridiculous, but it could really help a lot of people. Who'd have thought Tetris was so useful for anything other than wasting time?

Emily A. Holmes, Ella L. James, Thomas Coode-Bate, Catherine Deeprose (2009). Can Playing the Computer Game âTetrisâ Reduce the Build-Up of Flashbacks for Trauma? A Proposal from Cognitive Science PLoS ONE, 4 (1) DOI: 10.1371/journal.pone.0004153

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