How Playing Tetris Tames The Trauma Of A Car Crash

A team of scientists from the U.K. and Sweden unveiled a study suggesting that engaging in a mere 20 minutes of Tetris—termed a “Tetris-based intervention” in research language—after a car mishap can assist in avoiding the distressing, unwelcome memories typically associated with traumatic experiences.

This recent study analyzed 71 individuals who arrived at John Radcliffe Hospital’s emergency room in Oxford, England, within six hours post a car collision. During their waiting period, they were first prompted to recollect their traumatic experience, emphasizing the most haunting moments.

For their participation, they received compensation. Following this, they were either directed to engage in a 20-minute Tetris game on a Nintendo DS XL handheld device or to document an activity log detailing their experiences since their hospital arrival. The latter group acted as the benchmark.

Interestingly, those who played Tetris reported 62% fewer unwelcome memories during the initial week post-accident than those in the control group. Moreover, their distressing memories faded at a faster rate compared to the control group.

Although the sample size of the study was limited, the authors are convinced that the findings warrant an expansive trial to understand the long-term efficacy of this Tetris treatment, and are currently in the process of securing funds for the same.

The harrowing memories and vivid flashbacks are hallmarks of anxiety-related disorders like acute stress disorder and PTSD.

As per the guidelines set by the DSM-5, a recognized manual for psychiatric diagnoses, PTSD diagnosis is only valid one month after the triggering event. If the effectiveness of Tetris can be ascertained over this period, it could offer a simplistic and feasible solution for medical professionals.

Holmes proposes that engaging in Tetris soon after a distressing event can potentially disrupt the process of memory consolidation—the transition from short-term to long-term memory. Studies indicate a post-trauma window wherein a traumatic memory can either be impeded or altogether prevented, allowing memories to disassociate from emotional centers in the brain.

Holmes speculates that the results aren’t exclusively attributable to Tetris. Traumatic memories are predominantly sensory in nature, with trauma visuals and audio resurfacing in startling clarity.

She theorizes that any visually intensive activity engaging the brain’s sensory components could prevent such vivid memories from crystallizing initially.

While Tetris, with its vibrant colors, dynamic shapes, and continuous movement, fits this criterion, her past studies suggest that digital quizzes and counting tasks don’t. Holmes is contemplating studying other visually-intensive activities like sketching and the video game Candy Crush soon.

Trauma’s psychological ramifications have ancient roots, even finding mentioned in the Old Testament. Both Hippocrates and Lucretius documented the repercussions of battle traumas. The 13th-century Icelandic tale, Gisli Súrsson, narrates the protagonist’s torment, haunted by battle memories, leading him to solitude.

Over the ages, several trauma treatments have emerged, often in wartime contexts. Hypnosis is a notable example, championed for centuries as a potential method to mitigate or neutralize traumatic memories.

In the early 20th century, Pierre Janet, a French psychologist, pioneered a progressive hypnotic strategy to address symptoms akin to today’s PTSD. His belief was that it could help individuals emotionally disconnect from unsettling memories.

Contemporary practitioners occasionally employ hypnosis to navigate trauma, though its effectiveness remains a topic of debate. Some studies even suggest its potential harm to individuals burdened with traumatic memories.

Lynn voices concerns over the potential of solidifying fabricated memories through hypnosis. Still, he acknowledges its potential benefits when combined with established psychotherapies like cognitive processing therapy, emphasizing thought modification, and prolonged exposure, focusing on re-engagement with traumatic memories.

Another debatable PTSD treatment, developed in the 1980s by psychologist Francine Shapiro, is eye movement desensitization and reprocessing (EMDR). This therapy encourages patients to recall traumatic incidents while simultaneously moving their eyes side-to-side or engaging in other distractions. The intent is to enable patients to reprocess and reduce the distress of these memories.

EMDR faced skepticism in the 1990s, with studies suggesting the mere act of recalling traumas, already recognized as beneficial for PTSD coping, was the true therapeutic element, not the eye movements.

Currently, trauma victims have various therapeutic avenues. Multiple psychotherapy modalities, antidepressant drugs, and even the compound N-acetylcysteine offer potential relief. In the expanding field of psychoactive and psychedelic drugs for mental disorders, the recreational substance MDMA, or ecstasy, appears promising for PTSD.

The potential of Tetris as therapy shows promise, as observed by McNally, who wasn’t part of the research. While there are myriad treatments available, some dubious like certain supplements, the ideal combination of visual distraction and confronting traumatic memories might soon become a favored therapeutic approach. The role of the Nintendo DS XL in this treatment is still under consideration.