Thursday, January 15, 2009

Tetris: A Possible PTSD Vaccine?

You’ve been doing a lot of good, healing BRIDGE THE GAP work lately. So, today is a game day, literally. What do you think of this?

A recent study out of Oxford University suggests that playing Tetris shortly after experiencing trauma may help prevent PTSD-related flashbacks.

According to a summary article by Jennifer Copley for

In a recent study, researchers had healthy male and female volunteers watch a traumatic film, which included images of horrible injuries and deaths from numerous sources, such as anti-drunk-driving advertisements. Thirty minutes later, the experimental group played the video game Tetris for 10 minutes while a control group sat quietly, doing nothing. Over the following week, subjects kept a diary of flashback experiences.

The two groups scored similarly on measures of mood and trait anxiety prior to the study, and after watching the film, participants in both groups suffered a deterioration in mood, indicating that they had been psychologically affected by the experience. However, over the next seven days, the Tetris group suffered far fewer flashbacks. They also scored significantly lower on the Impact of Events Scale, which measures trauma symptoms, but scored as highly as the control group on a test of memory recognition, indicating that they had not forgotten the film.They could recall elements of the film by choice, but were not subjected to as many involuntary traumatic sensory experiences.

Tetris May Interfere with Aspects of Memory Formation

Prior research suggests that there are two channels through which memories are formed:

· Sensory, which records perceptual experiences
· Conceptual, which creates meaning from those experiences

There is a short window of opportunity directly after events have occurred during which the brain’s attempts to store memories are subject to interference. This window lasts for approximately six hours after an event. Playing Tetris, with its brightly coloured moving shapes, may disrupt some aspects of memory retention by interfering with the sensory channel without robbing individuals of the ability to derive meaning from their experiences.

Because Tetris is an interactive game, players are fully engaged with the new visuospatial elements, leaving fewer cognitive resources available to deal with other sensory information. The idea that certain visuospatial tasks compete for limited cognitive resources is supported by the fact that Eye Movement Desensitization and Reprocessing (EMDR), a treatment for PTSD in which patients make rapid eye movements while experiencing traumatic imagery in their minds, is has proven effective in reducing the vividness of PTSD flashbacks.

Not all distractions will prevent or diminish PTSD flashbacks. Prior research has found that counting backwards or engaging in verbal tasks while watching traumatic material can actually increase the incidence of flashbacks. This indicates that distraction alone is not sufficient to lower the incidence of traumatic flashbacks; rather, it requires specific types of visuospatial distraction.

My question for all of you is this: Given what we real survivors know of traumatic experiences, do you think this study has any validity? For example, do you think in the 6 hours after your trauma you would have found it appropriate to begin playing a video game? Do you think you could have even focused well enough to play Tetris?

I’m having trouble believing in the promise of this ‘cognitive vaccine’ (as some are already calling this theory). It is one thing to watch a disturbing movie, and quite another to play the lead role in that movie. I’m not sure this experiment takes into account the extreme subconscious imprinting that goes on when one experiences trauma. Those safe, secure participants watching the film did not experience the terrifying psychological or somatic effects of being violated, rendered powerless or feeling life-threatened. If they were not part of the study, or not encouraged to document their thoughts about the movies for the following week, would these participants have even had thoughts about the movie in the days afterward?

I’m curious to hear your thoughts….

Is this Tetris study coming close enough to appropriating the traumatic experience for its findings to be relevant? If you do not experience even the smallest life-threatening or powerless feeling, can your response to someone else’s trauma matter in the realm of fact or healing?

(photo: Propagandalf)


Alicia, Celebrity Psychings said...

Hi Michele! *waving*

I read about this the other day. I'm not an expert in PTSD, but my thoughts are falling along the same lines as your thoughts: How likely is it that - within the first six hours of suffering a crime/event that could lead to PTSD - the victim is going to be willing to play a video game? I mean, let's forget for a moment how highly unlikely it will be that the victim will be in the mood (or even physical shape) for playing video games, and think about how highly unlikely it will be that the victim will even have the video game at his/her disposal.

Are soldiers going to be given breaks every few hours to engage in a game of Tetris? After their physical examinations, are rape victims going to be shuffled off to a room in the hospital dedicated to Tetris-playing?

Sounds pretty absurd when we think about it that way.

Of course, on the other hand...maybe this study will lead to new understandings and even more research? It's worth some hope.

Anonymous said...
This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.
Anonymous said...

I agree along the lines of the military and the victims of crime. However, it would be quite appropriate for an EMT or a firefighter to play a game of tetris after getting back to the station after a stressful situation. It may be someone else's crisis, but the EMT and firefighter also feel the effects and can develop PTSD from stressful and crime related accidents. Advice from an actual firefighter/EMT, as I am both.

Michele Rosenthal said...

@Anonymous -- Thank you for sharing your perspective! We don't have anyone with your background here. I'd like to hear more of your thoughts, and I have an idea if you're willing to share. Please email me:

Also, this blog has moved to Come join us on the updated version. :)