Victims suffering from PTSD are often plagued with the memories of their trauma. Images from their experience might play over and over again in their mind, an intrusive and involuntary reliving of the traumatic event.
But researchers think playing Tetris could help dampen those memories and make it easier for patients to cope.
“These [traumatic] memories are not like facts and figures, they’re visual memories,” says Emily Holmes, program leader at Cambridge University’s Cognition and Brain Sciences Unit. Holmes and her team figured if you could find a way to occupy the same part of the brain that’s processing these memories with something innocuous, maybe that would help keep harrowing memories at bay. In other words, Holmes wanted to keep patient’s minds off vivid, disturbing images with something that’s equally visual, but less upsetting.
“Tetris is really interesting in that regard,” Holmes says. “They’re filling up your visual field your visual field in terms of color and motion. They give us a really nice cognitive task that’s going to interfere with the same kind of storage or pathways that otherwise these more traumatic or emotional images would hold.”
Holmes says she found that when people play Tetris within hours of watching distressing media or film footage, they didn’t think about the footage as much as people who didn’t play the game. “When that memory is cementing to the mind — you could use a game like Tetris to dampen down or reduce the number of memories that flash back,” Holmes says.
But playing Tetris didn’t just soften harsh memories that were in the process of forming, it was also able to take the edge off ones that were at least a day old, according to Holmes. “We’re interested because it has future clinical potential,” she says. “A lot of people, you might not be able to reach them so soon after a trauma, but you might be able to reach them a day or so later.”
That kind of therapy might not be so far away. Holmes and her colleagues are thinking of ways to apply the research to help real patients. “People who experience rape, people with PTSD — are there mechanisms through research to help reduce those memories of real world trauma?” Holmes wonders.
This story first aired as an interview on PRI's The Takeaway, a public radio program that invites you to be part of the American conversation.
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