After a person experiences something traumatic, vivid, painful memories of the incident often return unexpectedly; over time, these recollections can lead to depression, severe grief, and post-traumatic stress disorder. A new study published in Molecular Psychiatry suggests that playing Tetris in the hours following a traumatic experience could help prevent some of these horrible memories from resurfacing.
The proof-of-concept study was led by psychology professor Emily Holmes from the Karolinska Institute in Sweden and research clinical psychologist Lalitha Iyadurai from the University of Oxford. Based on past research and neuroscience concepts, the team hypothesized that playing certain games could stop these invasive memories from building up.
The 71 study participants were people waiting in the ER of Oxford's John Radcliffe Hospital after getting into car accidents. Half of the group was asked to revisit the traumatic memory, then, after being taught how to play Tetris on a Nintendo DS, they played for about 20 minutes. The other half did no such thing. This all happened within six hours of their respective accidents. For the following week, all participants recorded any flashbacks they had.
Not only did people in the gamer group report 62 percent fewer intrusive memories compared to the control group, they said they felt less troubled by the flashbacks, too. According to a press release, one participant said that the game "took my mind off [the traumatic experience] at a time when I probably would have sat brooding and feeling very sorry for myself."
Iyadurai and her team are curious to know if the effects of playing games after a traumatic event might hold up over a longer period of time. (Iyadurai and team had similar results in a 2012 study that looked at flashbacks following watching a disturbing film.) Furthermore, they think that other activities and games like Candy Crush or even just drawing could be helpful because they combine spatially and visually oriented exercises like Tetris does. They note in a release that verbal tasks, like reading and doing crossword puzzle, may not be as helpful.
While the results seem promising, Rachel Yehuda, director of the traumatic stress studies division at the Icahn School of Medicine at Mount Sinai, explains that they should be taken with a grain of salt. Playing Tetris—much like taking meds such as Valium—right after trauma can "kick the can down the road, postponing the after-effects and causing them to come back with a vengeance later."
It's essential that we don't simply dismiss intrusive memories; we have to engage with them, she says. This is because these flashbacks exist as a way for our bodies deal with trauma. "We don't want to be preoccupied with our trauma, but we also don't want to deny or avoid it," Yehuda says. "We want to find some sweet spot, where we're doing just enough." It seems, then, that we should proceed with caution: Longer-term studies need to be conducted in order to make sure people aren't just suppressing things that need to be addressed.
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UPDATE 4/3/17: A previous version of this article said Dr. Yehuda is at the Mount Sinai School of Medicine. It is actually called the Icahn School of Medicine at Mount Sinai.