As computer games go, Tetris is one of the most mesmeric. Now, a team of researchers has found that the visual processing required to play the game can help sufferers of post-traumatic stress disorder overcome flashbacks—even after the memory of an event is lodged within their brain.


Back in 2009, a team of researchers led by Emily Holmes from the Medical Research Council Cognition and Brain Sciences Unit in Cambridge discovered that playing Tetris within four hours of experiencing a traumatic event helped decease the number of flashbacks that a victim suffered. But for most people experiencing trauma — be they soldiers, rape victims, those involved in car accidents or something else entirely — it’s impractical to sit down with a Game Boy in that kind of time frame. But as hours and days pass, memories become consolidated in the brain and the flashbacks are more difficult to temper.

Now, New Scientist reports that a study by the same team shows that playing Tetris can still help. In a series of experiments, 56 participants were shown footage of distressing events. A day later, they were shown stills from the same footage to reactivate their memories—raising them into a state within the brain where they can be modified. Then, half the participants played Tetris for 12 minutes while the others sat still. Over the following week, the team’s results show, those who played Tetris suffered 51 percent fewer memories of the video and scored lower on questionnaires used to diagnose post-traumatic stress disorder, too.


The team behind the work reckons that games like Tetris, which require the brain to quickly process visual information, help disturb the imagery connected with the traumatic event. The memory is still there, they suggest, but it’s visually less vivid. The team also suggests that other similar games could be used to the same end. While evidence is clearly mounting that such interventions can have a positive effect, it will no doubt be a little while before Tetris is established as an early preventative treatment for post-traumatic stress disorder in the likes of emergency rooms and police stations — but it’s certainly one worth bearing in mind if you or someone close to you is ever unlucky enough to suffer trauma.

[Psychological Science via New Scientist]

Image by Leonora Giovanazzi under Creative Commons license