Post Traumatic Stress Disorder, or PTSD, gained extensive media coverage after the Mumbai terror attacks in November. Health professionals expect many survivors, and families and friends of victims and survivors, to show symptoms of PTSD. Sufferers are prone to lack of sleep, fear and, most of all, nightmares and flashbacks.
The latter are considered hallmark PTSD symptoms.
Now, a team of researchers from the University of Oxford have discovered that playing the popular computer game Tetris a few minutes after being subjected to traumatic stimuli may help to reduce instances of flashback. While the results are still preliminary, the researchers believe that the study could help devise ways of early intervention in the case of PTSD before the disorder gets full blown.
The methodology used for the study is known as the “trauma film paradigm” where subjects are shown films with traumatic themes and then asked to play Tetris for a few minutes. They are then asked to note down instances of involuntary flashbacks of scenes in the film. The frequency is compared to the frequency of a group of subjects who didn’t play the game.
We spoke to Catherine Deeprose, one of the researchers, about the implications of the study for both computer games and for future PTSD treatments. Edited excerpts:
Tell us, in a layman’s nutshell, the key learnings of your study?
The key finding is that playing Tetris’ after viewing traumatic material reduces unwanted, involuntary memory flashbacks to that traumatic film. However, deliberate memory recall of the event is left intact.
What prompted this intriguing piece of research in the first place?
The trauma film paradigm is an established experimental analogue for looking at the effects of trauma and post traumatic stress disorder in healthy volunteers. We knew from previous research that completing certain tasks during a trauma film could reduce flashbacks in healthy volunteers. In this study, we wanted to test whether we could also reduce flashbacks by completing tasks after the trauma. This is important, as, in the real world, therapeutic interventions would have to be delivered following the event.
Mumbai was recently the site of vicious terrorist attacks with many deaths. Do you see your research potentially helping doctors helping the victims of that attack?
Our research is a pure science experiment—while it informs us as to the mechanisms that may be involved in the manipulation of memories for trauma, there is a lot of work required to translate this into a clinical therapeutic intervention.
Tell us a little bit about why Tetris works. Is there something inherently unique about the application that makes it help cope with PTSD?
Tetris may work by competing for the brain’s resources for sensory information. We suggest it specifically interferes with the way sensory memories are laid down in the period after trauma and thus reduces the number of flashbacks that are experienced afterwards.
And do you think other games could have a similar effect? Other activities like gaming?
From our theory, we could predict that only games like Tetris that make us use our simple sensory processes (e.g. sight, colour, movement) would interfere with memory consolidation of the type to reduce sensory flashback memories. In contrast, games based on verbal language would not be predicted to have this effect.
And, finally, does this mean we need to look harder at the value of activities like videogaming? For an activity that gets a lot of bad press, does your study give gaming somewhat of a positive spin?
No conclusions can be drawn more generally from our study regarding computer gaming and its effects.