Researchers 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.