Another Piece Slides Into Place for Tetris as a Trauma Intervention

Photo by Tim Bartel (CC BY-SA 2.0)

There’s something soothing about Tetris, isn’t there? Spinning chaotic tetrominoes until they form up in nice, clean lines? As it turns out, though, it’s more than just soothing. It may be downright therapeutic.

A recent study published in Molecular Psychiatry put Tetris in the hands of people who had recently been through a motor vehicle accident. This wasn’t just a way to keep them busy in crowded emergency rooms — researchers believed the intensity of Tetris, specifically its “high visuospatial demands,” could disrupt the formation of traumatic memories.

This isn’t the first time researchers have explored that very question. In one 2012 study, participants were shown disturbing films. Those who played Tetris in the six hours afterward reported significantly fewer flashbacks of the film. But films are one thing — intrusive memories of real-life trauma is what researchers really wanted to decrease.

Some of the research team involved in the 2012 study carried on to this most recent study, finally testing their hypothesis in a genuinely traumatic scenario. The results are promising.

Participants included 71 patients waiting in the emergency department at John Radcliffe Hospital in Oxford. All of them had experienced a traumatic motor vehicle accident no longer than six hours before participating. Those in the intervention group were asked to remember the accident, then given instructions to play Tetris for about 20 minutes. The control group simply noted their activities in that time period.

Over the week that followed, all participants noted down any intrusive memories of their accident that the experienced. Members of the intervention group had 62 percent fewer intrusive memories than those in the control group. They also reported less distress, and their intrusive memories declined more quickly.

“A brief psychological intervention including Tetris offers a cognitive ‘therapeutic vaccine’ that could be administered soon after a traumatic event to prevent the recurrence of intrusive memories of trauma in the subsequent week,” says Lalitha Iyadurai of the University of Oxford.

Researchers hope to run another trial that can show whether the effects continue after a month. If they do, this could lead to a major change in how trauma is handled. Dealing with intrusive traumatic memories can have a devastating impact on people’s lives for years. Tetris can’t change that for people who are currently suffering, but it may be able to diminish the long-term impact of trauma for people in the future.

Trauma isn’t the only thing researchers believe Tetris may be good for. A 2015 study found that participants who played the game several times a day reported fewer cravings for addictive substances.

Before you come to the conclusion that Alexey Pajitnov created a miracle drug back in 1984, the researchers involved in the latest study don’t believe that Tetris itself is the key. They expect that other activities that combine visual and spatial tasks may have similar benefits, including other games and even activities like drawing. Because Tetris has been used in several psychological studies, it’s a good pick — but one day we may find whole categories of games that can help after trauma.

[Molecular Psychiatry]