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Tetris as a Vaccine Against PTSD

Playing Tetris may be an effective early PTSD intervention.

Playing Tetris soon after a traumatic event may help lessen the symptoms of post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). That's right, we're talking about Tetris, that old video game with the falling blocks.

PTSD is characterized by highly intrusive, sometimes debilitating flashbacks. If it were possible to make traumatic experiences less memorable, doing so might decrease the incidence of PTSD.

That's what a recent study seems to have done. Participants viewed a traumatic film. Either 30 minutes or four hours later, participants were divided into three groups.

  • Do nothing
  • Play Pub Quiz
  • Play Tetris

"Flashbacks" to the traumatic film were recorded throughout the next week. Remarkably, playing Tetris significantly reduced flashbacks. And it wasn't just playing a game that mattered; playing Pub Quiz (another computer game) did not decrease flashbacks in one experiment, and it significantly increased flashbacks in another experiment.

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It's not clear exactly why Tetris was effective. It appears that playing Tetris, which is a visuo-spatial task, interfered with the formation of visuo-spatial memories. For obvious reasons, a verbal game did not have the same interfering effect. 

Why did the interference have effects that could be detected for an entire week? The answer can be explained based on memory consolidation. When we encounter new information (e.g., a funny youtube video), we don't instantly file away complete memories. Instead, our brains continue to "digest," or consolidate, the memory. Interrupting the consolidation process can weaken the memory. Apparently, Tetris interfered with consolidation of the traumatic memory in this experiment. 

These findings are clearly preliminary. The study was conducted with volunteers watching videos, not people who experienced real traumas. But future research may show that a relatively simple and non-invasive intervention, playing Tetris, if administered soon after a traumatic event, may help reduce PTSD. 

Nate Kornell, Ph.D., is an Assistant Professor of Psychology at Williams College.

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