Playing Tetris May Reduce Traumatic Flashbacks

Study Examines Potential of Computer Games as Treatment for Posttraumatic Stress Disorder

Medically Reviewed by Laura J. Martin, MD on November 11, 2010
From the WebMD Archives

Nov. 11, 2010 -- Some computer games are more effective than others at reducing traumatic flashbacks, according to a study.

Researchers led by Emily Holmes, a senior research fellow at Oxford University in England, compared the effects of playing two different types of computer games -- Tetris and Pub Quiz Machine 2008 -- or doing nothing when trying to minimize traumatic flashbacks.

The study showed those who played Tetris experienced fewer traumatic flashbacks while those who played PubQuiz actually experienced more.

Tetris is a puzzle computer game involving the manipulation of colored blocks; Pub Quiz is a computerized word game.

The study involved two experiments. In the first, 60 healthy people were shown a film about injury and death and the dangers of drunken driving. After waiting for 30 minutes after the film ended, participants were divided into three groups: playing Tetris for 10 minutes, playing Pub Quiz for 10 minutes, or doing nothing. There were no differences in the three groups with regard to age, depression, anxiety, and exposure to trauma. Flashbacks about the traumatic film were recorded in a diary for the following week.

The second experiment repeated the first one, but with 75 healthy participants, and this time, the wait from the time the film ended until the intervention was extended to four hours. Participants were randomly assigned to either do nothing, play Tetris, or play Pub Quiz.

In both experiments, the Tetris players reported fewer flashbacks while the Pub Quiz players reported significantly more flashbacks.

“Our latest findings suggest Tetris is still effective as long as it is played within a critical six-hour window after viewing a stressful film,” Holmes says in a news release. “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 findings may have implications for the treatment of posttraumatic stress disorder, in which traumatic flashbacks are a hallmark symptom.

The study results are published in the November issue of PLoS ONE.

How Computer Games Reduce Flashbacks

So why did a computer game about colored blocks prove to more effective in reducing traumatic flashbacks than a computerized word game?

The researchers say there are two main but separate channels of thought in the brain. One channel is sensory and shapes our perceptions about an experience. The other channel is conceptual, which allows us to put sensory information into context.

These two channels typically work in tandem, but when someone sees and/or experiences a traumatic event, these channels can become unbalanced, with sensory information often dominating contextual information. For example, in a car accident, we might remember more sensory information, such as the flash of headlights or the noise of a crash.

Holmes and her team suggest that moving colored blocks competes with the perceptual information channel in the brain, reducing the images of trauma seen on the video. The word game competed with remembering the conceptual channel, allowing for the visual memories in the perceptual channel to increase.

“This work is still experimental, and any potential treatment is a long way off,” Holmes says. “We are beginning to understand how intrusive memories/flashbacks are formed after trauma, and how we can use science to explore new preventative treatments.”