Could we develop a cognitive vaccine for trauma?

This was the title of a talk by Professor Emily Holmes at the Annual British Psychological Society Conference held last week in London.

Professor Holmes and her colleagues have been investigating whether playing Tetris in the immediate aftermath of trauma can reduce intrusive thoughts.

Tetris is the old video game with the falling blocks that you try to stack up neatly. I’ve just had a go on a free download myself to remind myself what it is like—not my idea of fun but certainly very distracting and required my full cognitive attention. And that’s the idea—in the immediate aftermath of trauma, when memories are still active, playing Tetris should interfere with memory consolidation. If we interfere with the memory consolidation process then the memory itself is weakened.

In the experiments people are asked to watch films with traumatic content such as car accidents. Afterwards, half the participants played Tetris. In the weeks following, those who played Tetris score lower than those who didn't on measures of intrusive imagery.

The work has attracted a great deal of attention and promises to point to new forms of intervention for sufferers of trauma.

Playing a computer game to prevent the effects of trauma might seem trivial but Professor Holmes likened it to hand washing—another seemingly trivial act—but one that that has saved millions of lives since it was first discovered that it prevented the spread of germs.

Clearly, more research is needed and with people who have experienced real life traumas.

But the question that no one has asked is whether such a cognitive vaccine may inadvertently stifle posttraumatic growth.

Would blocking memories of trauma interfere with the process of posttraumatic growth?  What are intrusive thoughts really? Are they a symptom of a psychiatric illness or are they a signal that the person is engaged in a period of contemplative ruminative activity—albeit highly distressing—but necessary if they are to work through the implications of what has happened and as a result find posttraumatic growth?

To answer this, the researchers now need to look simultaneously at posttraumatic stress and posttraumatic growth. To investigate one without the other is only half the story.

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