November 12, 2010, 11:09 AM — Who says video games are a waste of time? Playing Tetris may help reduce memory flashbacks associated with traumatic images, according to a new study by Oxford University researchers.
In a series of experiments, Oxford scientists have learned that Tetris, the popular puzzle video game that debuted more than a quarter-century ago, may have a unique ability to limit the effect of traumatic memories.
Earlier studies at Oxford had shown that playing Tetris after traumatic experiences could reduce flashbacks in healthy volunteers. Not all video games have this special ability, however. A newer series of experiments show that while Tetris lessened flashbacks, Pub Quiz Machine 2008--a trivia quiz game--actually increased their frequency.
The Oxford team showed a film containing traumatic scenes of injury to study volunteers. After a 30-minute wait, 20 volunteers played Tetris for 10 minutes, 20 played Pub Quiz for 10 minutes and 20 did nothing.
The group that played Tetris had "significantly fewer flashbacks" of the film than those who did nothing. Interestingly, the Pub Quiz players experienced far more flashbacks. In a second test, the post-film wait was extended to 4 hours. Again, the Tetris group had substantially fewer flashbacks.
"Our latest findings suggest Tetris is still effective as long as it is played within a four-hour window after viewing a stressful film," said Dr. Emily Holmes of Oxford University's Department of Psychiatry, in a statement.
"Whilst playing Tetris can reduce flashback-type memories without wiping out the ability to make sense of the event, we have shown that not all computer games have this beneficial effect - some may even have a detrimental effect on how people deal with traumatic memories," Dr. Holmes said.
So what makes Tetris effective at blocking traumatic memories? Oxford researchers believe that recognizing shapes and moving colored blocks--two primary activities in Tetris--compete with traumatic flashbacks in the brain. By comparison, a word-based game like Pub Quiz actually reinforces visual memories and increases the incidence of flashbacks.
"Whist this work is still experimental, and any potential treatment is a long way off, we are beginning to understand how intrusive memories/flashbacks are formed after trauma, and how we can use science to explore new preventative treatments," said Dr. Holmes.