Can Playing Tetris Ease the Symptoms of Post-Traumatic Stress?

By Eliza Strickland | January 7, 2009 10:06 am

tetris.jpgPlaying the absorbing video game Tetris immediately after a traumatic experience could reduce the most jarring symptom of post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), the flashbacks in which the distressing memory invades the brain. In an odd new study, researchers showed volunteers ugly images of nasty accidents, crushed-up skulls and bloody entrails from various sources. Then they asked half of them to play Tetris. While the other half apparently did nothing…. The Tetris players apparently suffered significantly fewer nasty memories of those ugly images than did those who were left idle [CNET].

The Tetris players may have experienced fewer flashbacks because they were distracted during a crucial window of opportunity, the few hours after the traumatic incident when the brain is consolidating the memory. Says lead author Emily Holmes: “We wanted to find a way to dampen down flashbacks – the raw sensory images of trauma that are over-represented in the memories of those with PTSD. Tetris may work by competing for the brain’s resources for sensory information. We suggest it specifically interferes with the way sensory memories are laid down in the period after trauma and thus reduces the number of flashbacks that are experienced afterwards” [BBC News]. Playing Tetris could be considered a “cognitive vaccine” against flashbacks, Holmes suggested.

Researchers say they used Tetris in the experiment because the game, in which colored blocks are manipulated and slotted together, uses a large part of the brain; anyone who has played the game obsessively can also tell you that the patterns of falling shapes linger in the memory. Holmes says she doesn’t know whether other video games would have a similar effect.

Holmes acknowledges that the study, published in the journal PLoS ONE, can’t easily be applied to real-world situations. The game would have to be played immediately after the traumatic event, and it’s unlikely that soldiers in war zones or patients in intensive care units would be able to whip out a video game player. But Holmes says the experiment still has value: “This was a pure science experiment about how the mind works from which we can try to understand the bigger picture. There is a lot to be done to translate this experimental science result into a potential treatment” [Telegraph], she says.

Related Content:
DISCOVER: Curing the Wounds of Iraq With Virtual Therapy
DISCOVER: Stress and Your Brain goes deeper into the aftereffects of trauma

Image: flickr / Micah Taylor

  • Jef

    That’s cool. I think the principle could work with some games that don’t require special equipment, like that memory game school girls play where you clap hands and recall words of a topic to a beat, or trying some kind of eurythmics thing like tapping your head while making a circle on your belly or something, or going home and practicing a musical instrument. This is a good bit of studying they’re doing. I hope they get some useful results soon. People go through traumatic things every day.

  • chilton

    its called a gameboy, every kid had one when i was younger why couldn’t every soldier??
    DROP DOWN AND GIVE ME 10,000 POINTS SOLDIER!!!!
    but seriouslt though, with the technology advances these days, the military would easily be able to whip up a smaller device thats less prone to damage, maby they should think a bit more about their own soldiers health too when they are thuinking of weapons to strike fear in an enemy

  • Gina

    Slightly over 12 years ago I was in an auto accident and suffered a moderate closed head injury. After two years of very little recovery, my husband got an computer version of Tetris for me. Playing it at least for 15 minutes a day, I started seeing improvements in my cognitive processing speed until finally after about a year I was almost back to my former pre-accident level of functioning. That was why I clicked on this link to read this article. I am convinced that I would have been substantially permanently disabled except for two things that seemed to trigger a dramatic leap forward in my recovery: playing tetris and becoming pregnant with a child (pregnancy hormones). They’ve already found that progesterone given to soldiers soon after a tramatic brain injury slows the extent of the injury. From my own personal experience I believe progesterone (and maybe estrogen) have benefits even past the initial injury point, and that playing games such as tetris help with recovery also. I know someone is probably chuckling at this post too, and who knows, maybe being in love helped too… :)

  • CDOG72

    If hand-eye-mind coordination is the key then juggling is as good or better than tetris. The combined effort to keep three balls airborne for even a short period of time is totally absorbing. I know at least one Iraq combat vet who juggled rocks in theater to keep his ming off his morturary affairs detail.

  • Jaxon

    Tetris is popular because it has been proven to reduce stress and enhance brain power. The most notable was a UK study showed Tetris helped people that were victims of trauma reduce flashbacks.

    As a documentary-article clearly points out, today’s video games spend millions and must use violence and marketing to achieve even a percentage of what Tetris has accomplished.

    It’s amazing how many people playing now. Must see, http://tinyurl.com/r97xna

  • Angie

    I think you can replace negative images and even experiences by positive images. It seems to work with TV too.

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