Stress can be a big problem for people. Violence from war, terrorism, rape, or domestic violence can hurt your spirit and persecute you for years to come. Our awareness of global conflict spread and immediate access to the media calls for psychologists to seek effective stress relief treatments to minimize harm.
A recent study examined the possibility of using computer game Tetris to reduce post-traumatic stress disorder. It may seem great at first, but let's take a closer look at its reasoning and results.
Trauma experiences are usually recalled visually and spatially. The event image is later reconstructed as a flashback by the brain. This can be triggered by a similar environment, sound, smell, or not at all. However, these images are not immediately captured by the brain. There is a window of about 6 hours after the event, and it seems that memories are integrated and stored there.
This is the first fact that researchers and clinicians can exploit. If you can disrupt the formation of these memories in any way over the course of 6 hours, you can reduce and even prevent long-term damage. In fact, strategies are used to do this, often using drugs that temporarily disrupt the brain chemistry and prevent memory formation.
The problem with this approach is that all reminders about the event can become unreliable. Sometimes such memory can be beneficial. First, it helps prevent future exposure to such events. Second, these reminders may be needed to assist law enforcement in criminal cases. Which other approaches can researchers try?
Enter Tetris. Tetris is a visual space game that uses the same brain resources to encode a memory of traumatic events. This was the reason for trying to interfere with traumatic memory consolidation. Did that work?
Researchers recorded two groups of healthy adults and showed actual videos of violence and death. This is a standard psychological tool that mimics exposure to trauma. After the video, half of the participants did nothing but the other half played Tetris for 10 minutes. The next week, participants were asked to investigate all flashbacks that occurred in connection with violent and disturbing video recordings.
Tetris player groups were less than half of non-player group flashbacks. This suggests that playing Tetris impeded the ability to integrate traumatic memory. But this is the cool part. There was no difference between the groups in their ability to recall the video. This means that the emotional impact of the experience is suppressed, but not the ability to capture facts about the experience.
The study is not said to cure post-traumatic stress disorder where soldiers and victims of violence play a little Tetris after a traumatic experience, but this may help a little. However, this study opens the possibility of developing new ways to better support victims of future violence.
Current methods, including debriefing, make the experience worse and even worse. That is why psychologists are looking for new tools, and this study helps bring them to them.
In the short term, after a tough fight with the Call of Duty, you may want to encourage kids to relax with a small Tetris.