Tetris appears to have a unique ability to reduce unpleasant flashbacks, Oxford University scientists have found. While the discovery probably won't lead to teams of medics rushing to disaster scenes clutching games consoles, it could have implications for the treatment of post-traumatic stress disorder.
The Oxford team had already discovered that playing Tetris after traumatic events could reduce flashbacks. But in a new study comparing the effects of Tetris with a word-based quiz game - Pub Quiz Machine 2000 - they found that the quiz game made them worse.
The team showed a film to healthy volunteers that included traumatic images of injury from a variety of sources, including adverts highlighting the dangers of drink driving.
After waiting for 30 minutes, 20 volunteers played Tetris for 10 minutes, 20 played Pub Quiz for 10 minutes and 20 did nothing.
Those who had played Tetris experienced significantly fewer flashbacks of the film than those who did nothing, whilst those who played Pub Quiz experienced significantly more. When the wait was extended to four hours, those who played Tetris again had significantly fewer flashbacks. In both experiments, all groups were equally able to recall specific details of the film.
"Our latest findings suggest Tetris is still effective as long as it is played within a four-hour window after viewing a stressful film," said Dr Emily Holmes of Oxford University’s Department of Psychiatry.
"Whilst playing Tetris can reduce flashback-type memories without wiping out the ability to make sense of the event, we have shown that not all computer games have this beneficial effect – some may even have a detrimental effect on how people deal with traumatic memories."
The team believes the effect is due to the way the mind has two separate channels of thought: one sensory and the other conceptual. Generally, the two work in balance with each other - for example, we use one channel to see and hear someone talk and the other to comprehend what they are saying.
However, when someone is exposed to traumatic information, these channels are thought to function unequally so that the perceptual information overrides the conceptual information.
Research has shown that there's a six hour-window after a trauma in which it's possible to interfere with the way that traumatic memories are formed. During this period, certain tasks can compete with the brain channels that are needed to form the memory. This is because there are limits to our abilities in each channel: for example, it's difficult to hold a conversation while doing maths problems.
The Oxford team reasoned that recognising the shapes and moving the coloured building blocks around in Tetris competes with the images of trauma in the perceptual information channel. Consequently, the images of trauma - the flashbacks - are reduced. The effect can't simply be a simple case of distracting the mind with a computer game, as answering general knowledge questions in the Pub Quiz game increased flashbacks.
The researchers believe that this is because the verbal based game competes with remembering the contextual meaning of the trauma, so the visual memories in the perceptual channel are reinforced and the flashbacks are increased.
Dr Holmes said: "Whist this work is still experimental, and any potential treatment is a long way off, we are beginning to understand how intrusive memories/flashbacks are formed after trauma, and how we can use science to explore new preventative treatments."