Tetris therapy for PTSD?

GnomeTris Tetris gameResearchers at Oxford University have found that playing the Tetris computer game after experiencing a traumatic event can lower the number of flashbacks the subject experiences later on:

The Oxford team showed a film to 40 healthy volunteers that included traumatic images of injury from a variety of sources, including adverts highlighting the dangers of drink driving. This is a recognised way to study the effects of trauma in the laboratory. After waiting for 30 minutes, 20 of the volunteers played ‘Tetris’ for 10 minutes while the other half did nothing. Those who had played the computer game experienced significantly fewer flashbacks to the film over the next week.

They theorize that the human mind processes information over two “channels”:  one that deals with the immediate sensory perception, and the other that assigns abstract meaning to it.  In the case of flashbacks from Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD), they theorize that memories from the first (sensory) channel haunt the sufferer with their intensity.  They further suggest that it’s possible to disrupt the encoding of those sensory memories without significantly affecting the “meaning” channel, by adding noise to the sensory channel:

The Oxford team reasoned that recognising the shapes and moving the coloured building blocks around in ‘Tetris’ soon after seeing traumatic events should compete with the visions of trauma to be retained in the sensory part of the brain. The narrative and meaning of the events should be unaffected.

Now when your boss catches you playing Tetris at work, you can rationalize it:  you aren’t goofing off, you’re preventing future flashbacks to the endless death march of a project that’s currently leading the whole team to consider adding arsenic to their own doughnuts.

Sorry, that excuse won’t work on other games (yet) — the researchers were quick to point out that “no conclusions can be drawn more generally for computer gaming and its effects.”  And some of those games might even generate more trauma than your job (really, it could happen), not to mention the possibility of contracting yet another disorder: game addiction.

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15 Responses to Tetris therapy for PTSD?

  1. Those of us who are survivors think this is a ridiculous study. Here are some of the reasons why:

    We are having trouble believing in the promise of this ‘cognitive vaccine’ (as some are already calling this theory). It is one thing to watch a disturbing movie, and quite another to BE the lead role in that movie.

    We’re not sure this experiment takes into account the extreme subconscious imprinting that goes on when one experiences trauma. Those safe, secure participants watching the film did not experience the terrifying psychological or somatic effects of being violated, rendered powerless or feeling life-threatened. If they were not part of the study, or not encouraged to document their thoughts about the movies for the following week, would these participants have even had thoughts about the movie in the days afterward?

    We don’t feel this Tetris study comes close enough to appropriating the traumatic experience for its findings to be relevant. If you do not experience even the smallest life-threatening or powerless feeling, your response cannot matter in the realm of our fact or healing.

    It IS possible to heal PTSD. It comes from hard internal work, therapy, patience and a deep belief in the wholeness of the splintered self — not from playing a game which many of us do not have access to in the few hours following our traumas.

    • I, too, am suspicious about just how closely you can mimic a traumatic event in a laboratory. Perhaps, though, it could lead to a better understanding of how the mind works, and maybe to different forms of therapy that might help in some way. Obviously, your first thought after a traumatic event is not “I need to play a video game.”

  2. Those of us who are survivors think this is a ridiculous study. Here are some of the reasons why:

    We are having trouble believing in the promise of this ‘cognitive vaccine’ (as some are already calling this theory). It is one thing to watch a disturbing movie, and quite another to BE the lead role in that movie.

    We're not sure this experiment takes into account the extreme subconscious imprinting that goes on when one experiences trauma. Those safe, secure participants watching the film did not experience the terrifying psychological or somatic effects of being violated, rendered powerless or feeling life-threatened. If they were not part of the study, or not encouraged to document their thoughts about the movies for the following week, would these participants have even had thoughts about the movie in the days afterward?

    We don't feel this Tetris study comes close enough to appropriating the traumatic experience for its findings to be relevant. If you do not experience even the smallest life-threatening or powerless feeling, your response cannot matter in the realm of our fact or healing.

    It IS possible to heal PTSD. It comes from hard internal work, therapy, patience and a deep belief in the wholeness of the splintered self — not from playing a game which many of us do not have access to in the few hours following our traumas.

    • I, too, am suspicious about just how closely you can mimic a traumatic event in a laboratory. Perhaps, though, it could lead to a better understanding of how the mind works, and maybe to different forms of therapy that might help in some way. Obviously, your first thought after a traumatic event is not "I need to play a video game."

  3. I have to agree with Michelle on this. While I understand that this may have become a standard for studying trauma, it is no where near the same as an experience of a traumatic event.

    I also can’t picture how this would be handled, either. Would police and ambulance personnel responding to an accident hand the victim of an accident or a violent crime a Gameboy, and say: “trust me, just play this”?

  4. I have to agree with Michelle on this. While I understand that this may have become a standard for studying trauma, it is no where near the same as an experience of a traumatic event.

    I also can't picture how this would be handled, either. Would police and ambulance personnel responding to an accident hand the victim of an accident or a violent crime a Gameboy, and say: "trust me, just play this"?

  5. Given that today’s weather here in New York City is gray and nasty, I have the urge to curl up with my comfort blanket (named Gandalf for the wizard in Lord of the Rings, of course) and a cup of cocoa and watch a movie.

  6. It contains the music of Celine Dion, for God’s sake. And every time I watch it, it begs the inevitable question, “whatever happened to Billy Zane?” But I still love it.

  7. They further suggest that it’s possible to disrupt the encoding of those sensory memories without significantly affecting the “meaning” channel, by adding noise to the sensory channel: