Tetris as Therapy

Most of us think of Tetris as little more than an addictive puzzle game. For a group of European researchers, however, it may be the focus of a new preventative treatment for trauma. In a study conducted at the John Radcliffe Hospital in Oxford, UK, researchers found that playing Tetris appeared to reduce intrusive memories in the short term among victims of motor vehicle accidents. The study was published in March 2017 in Nature’s Molecular Psychiatry.

Intrusive memories are unwanted sensory flashbacks to a traumatic event. They invoke recall of the sights, sounds, and emotions of the psychological trauma, and, if severe, they may impede daily functioning. Intrusive memories are linked to many serious psychological disorders, including post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), acute stress disorder, and depression.

Since intrusive memories are visual in nature, the researchers hypothesized that a visuospatially demanding task, such as Tetris, could be used to disrupt memory consolidation, or stabilization into long-term memory. Since the task only needed to engage the areas of the patient’s brain used for visual and spatial reasoning, other puzzle games, such as tangrams, also could have worked; the researchers simply chose Tetris for convenience.

In addition to simply playing Tetris, the patient first had to be shown a reminder cue: a sensory stimulus, such as a photo, that would trigger memory of the traumatic event. The reminder cue would prompt the patient to “open” the memory in the patient’s visual working memory, the cognitive version of a word processor program. Akin to how word processors allow computer users to view and alter documents, visual working memory allows the brain to view and alter memories. People, however, can only hold one image in their visual working memories at a time. Thus, when the patient plays Tetris, they may overload the working memory “program,” causing the traumatic memory “file” to “crash” and lose data. This prevents the intrusive memory from reappearing in the future, at least in the short term.

The study examined a group of emergency room patients who had recently experienced a traumatic motor vehicle accident. Study participants were split into two groups: one that received the Tetris intervention and one that received a neutral “control” intervention. The study was conducted during the participants’ emergency room waits, and all participants recorded intrusive memories during the week following the experiment. Intriguingly, participants who received the Tetris intervention were found to experience 62 percent fewer intrusive memories than those who received the control treatment.

The intervention differs from conventional trauma treatments in that it targets a specific symptom of trauma. The experiment is meant to be a proof-of-concept for using a game like Tetris as a “cognitive vaccine” to prevent the build-up of intrusive memories. Professor Emily Holmes of the Karolinska Institute, one of the study’s principal investigators, was careful to emphasize that further research is needed before the Tetris intervention can be considered a treatment. “We would need to replicate these results and also explore the effects of the intervention over longer time intervals,” Holmes said. She described working with refugee populations in Sweden, and she hopes that her research will eventually lead to the development of simple trauma treatments accessible to patients even under the most unfavorable circumstances. “That won’t happen tomorrow, but that would be my dream on why we should pursue precision medicine technological approaches.”