1980s Soviet Mind Game Might Help Treat PTSD

Tetris has been gobbling up free time and attention spans of devotees since long before Angry Birds and Candy Crush, but this colorful computer puzzle may be more than a diversion. A recent study in the Journal of Psychological Science showed how Tetris might help people block out memories of traumatic events.

When you suffer from post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD)—whether it was caused by war, a natural disaster, or anything else—our mental programming is sometimes interrupted by vivid, intrusive memories of a disturbing previous experience. So it makes sense that researchers at the Medical Research Council Cognition and Brain Sciences Unit in Cambridge, UK found that a mental puzzle like Tetris might in turn disrupt the storage of traumatic memories after an event occurs.

Tetris has shown surprising promise as a therapy.

Your brain doesn’t form memories instantaneously. Think of a court stenographer taking shorthand notes, which are later translated and filed, rather than a smartphone video that’s uploaded immediately to YouTube. Back in 2009, researchers found that people who were shown upsetting footage of accidents were less likely to have flashbacks if, within four hours, they spent half an hour playing Tetris. When people focus on the visual task of orienting all those little blocks in just the right way, they tend to overwhelm the court stenographer, and the details of the traumatic event aren’t properly filed. Thus the traumatic memory tends to be less intrusive later on.

The trouble with the 2009 study’s Tetris treatment was that within six hours, the brain’s ink has dried, the filing cabinets have been shut, and the memory is, in psychology lingo, consolidated. If you sleep on it, the memory solidifies even more. Given that survivors of earthquakes or bombings may not have Tetris on hand, there seemed to be little hope of successfully deploying colorful blocks to block PTSD.

But in the new study, Emily Holmes and her colleagues showed that, even the day after, upsetting memories can be mitigated with Tetris. The key is getting the memories to resurface by showing people some still photographs of the disturbing videos they’d seen the day before.

Here’s Jessica Griggs, writing for New Scientist:

This puts the memory back into the plastic state it was in before it was fully laid down, giving the team an opportunity to modify it. “It’s a bit like hard plasticine that’s a certain shape. When you warm it up, it becomes malleable and you can start reshaping it,” says Holmes.

There’s still a lot of work to be done before emergency responders start adding Game Boys to their gear, but the study authors are optimistic their work could have practical application as a preventative measure.

Given that almost one out of every 12 people will experience PTSD at some point in their lives, such a preventative measure is indeed desirable. And the Tetris treatment has a positive side effect: it’s amusing. As one of the early Tetris packages asserts, “From Russia, with fun.”