What if I was to tell you that playing video games can be good for you? That despite derision and their use in political point scoring, games such as Tetris and Candy Crush could one day be used to help people deal with traumatic events in their lives? You might be initially sceptical but there is growing evidence to support this. Although not a new idea, Tetris has been shown to be useful in reducing the uncontrollable intrusions associated with a traumatic experience.
So, how can we use a video game such as Tetris to interfere with traumatic memories? Well, in much the same way that you would interfere with any memory. As you create a new memory and have converted all the constituent parts into a form which the brain can understand, it goes through a period of consolidation. That is where the memory is stored within your brain so you are able to recall it at a later point. Now if we interfere with the memory during this period of consolidation it is less likely that we will recall said memory. For example, if we can provide some competition for the neural real estate the original memory is vying for then we can weaken the strength of that original memory. It seems to be important that the type of memory is relatively specific and needs to match the original memory’s modality (e.g. a visual-spatial task needs another visual-spatial task to compete with it effectively). This is essentially where Tetris comes in. The authors argued that if both the trauma memory and Tetris rely on the same visual-spatial resources then you can reduce the intrusiveness of the initial trauma memory.
This is exactly what Emily Holmes at the University of Oxford and her collaborators found in studies conducted over the past eight years. If you ask a participant to play Tetris 30 minutes after a lab-controlled trauma induction you can reduce the impact of the traumatic memory compared to a control condition. These early studies showed that, at least in the lab, you could interfere with traumatic memories in a therapeutic way by reducing their intrusive nature. Although they were not carried out in a naturalistic setting they provided evidence that the proposed mechanism existed and could be manipulated. It is also key to keep in mind that this study showed that playing Tetris reduced specifically the intrusiveness of the traumatic memories and not the deliberate recall memory for the event. As the uncontrollable nature of the traumatic memory is a source of considerable distress in PTSD it is important that any intervention can have a targeted effect. What about evidence for the use of Tetris to deal with naturally occurring trauma outside of the lab? This is where their latest study, published in Molecular Psychiatry, last week comes into play (it’s open access so you can read the full article yourself here).
In a small-scale naturalistic study in Oxford, Emily Holmes, and colleagues at the Karolinska Institute in Sweden, examined individuals in A&E who had recently (within 6 hours) experienced a motor accident as a driver, passenger or pedestrian. They randomised 71 eligible participants to either an intervention or control condition to test the real-life application of their previous findings. In the intervention condition, participants were asked to recall the traumatic event initially and to then spend at least 10 minutes (maximum 20 minutes) playing Tetris. By contrast, the control condition asked participants to write down all the activities they carried out during their time in A&E (e.g. completing a crossword, speaking to a friend, etc.). Participants were assessed at one week and one month following either the control or intervention task. During the initial week participants were required to complete a daily diary of the number of intrusive memories they experienced which were related to the trauma (e.g. motor accident). The participants were instructed not to report “memories recalled deliberately or general verbal thoughts”. The number of intrusions provided a primary way to assess the success of the use of the intervention (memory cue and Tetris).
So, what did the researchers find? Primarily, they showed that the use of Tetris and memory recall was an effective intervention. The number of intrusions was significantly reduced in the intervention group after one week (9 intrusions on average) compared to the control condition (23 intrusions on average). Furthermore, they also found that the intervention group also reported significantly less distress after one week. However, this reduction in distress did not remain when participants were followed up after one month. To supplement this data, the authors also asked the participants about their subjective experience of using the intervention. Their reports were positive and it was apparent that they appreciated the distraction from the accident which playing Tetris offered. One participant highlighted this clearly with, “it certainly took my mind off of it at a time when I probably would have sat brooding and feeling very sorry for myself…”. Another participant, who had not played Tetris before, was keen to keep playing it following the allotted 20 minutes. The intervention thus proved to be both feasible and acceptable.
Together, these findings support the usefulness and viability of using Tetris to combat intrusive traumatic memories in a real-life setting. The reduction in the number of intrusions following a natural traumatic event (e.g. motor accident) supports the intervention and suggests it could be a low-cost, easy to administer, therapy. As the authors highlight in the paper, waiting times in A&E can be as long as 4 hours and this would be an ideal time to target individuals who have experienced a traumatic accident. As a well-tolerated, and simple, intervention it seems ideal. However, this study is simply the beginning of translating Tetris, or similar aproaches, into the realms of clinical practice. Although this trial did not show an effect on distress at a one month follow-up, a larger trial may be better suited to pick out subtle effects for longer periods of time. Furthermore, additional doses of the intervention may also prove effective as a ‘booster’ to the initial dose. As any good piece of research, this trial raises more questions and exciting avenues for further study.
Alongside the compelling results, why should we be so excited about this research? It provides clear evidence that marrying cognitive neuroscience and clinical practice are vital for progress in both fields. It is still early days for this collaborative approach but hopefully this soon blossoms into a powerful and fruitful relationship. Basic science studies can be blamed for being too distant from the disorders and clinical fields they are trying to unpick and affect. However, with a greater understanding of the mechanisms at work behind mental distress we can develop novel therapies, like the use of Tetris, to target them and help real people. Personally, that is one of the amazing things about research and one of the reasons why I fell in love with science in the first place. More work is needed to validate these findings but, at least for the time being, they provide you with a great retort to anyone who claims video games are good for nothing. To quote Emily Holmes’ original Tetris paper in 2009, “…clearly not all computer games are bad for you.”
Iyadurai, L., Blackwell, S., Meiser-Stedman, R., Watson, P., Bonsall, M., Geddes, J., Nobre, A., & Holmes, E. (2017). Preventing intrusive memories after trauma via a brief intervention involving Tetris computer game play in the emergency department: a proof-of-concept randomized controlled trial Molecular Psychiatry DOI: 10.1038/mp.2017.23
Holmes, E. A., James, E. L., Coode-Bate, T., & Deeprose, C. (2009). Can playing the computer game “Tetris” reduce the build-up of flashbacks for trauma? A proposal from cognitive science. PloS one, 4(1), e4153.
Tetris Building (Body)