Tetris may help ease the symptoms of people suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder, a new study suggests. Playing the game, which involves guiding falling blocks onto a collection of other such pieces, after a traumatic event, could help reduce flashbacks from these experiences, researchers contend.

Oxford University psychologists found playing Tetris in the immediate aftermath of a traumatic event could reduce flashbacks. This condition is a primary symptom of the psychological condition. Currently-established techniques of treating PTSD can only begin after symptoms have started to show.

Volunteers in the study were exposed to traumatic material under laboratory conditions, and researchers tracked flashbacks experienced by the subjects. These distressing memories can be re-experienced by affected people as recurrent flashbacks to the moment of trauma.

Playing Tetris may create memories of the the sights and of the game, which replace those of the traumatic event, researchers speculate.

"This is only a first step in showing that this might be a viable approach to preventing PTSD. This was a pure science experiment about how the mind works from which we can try to understand the bigger picture. There is a lot to be done to translate this experimental science result into a potential treatment," said Emily Holmes of Oxford University.

Researchers on the study made three main assumptions about the human brain as part of this study. The first is that brains process direct memories, such as the sound of conversation, in a separate channel from interpretation processing (for example, interpreting the meanings of words). The second idea investigators accepted was that each stream of thought is only capable of processing a certain amount of information. The third was that the formation of memories can be altered for a certain time after an event occurs.

Post-traumatic stress disorder affects roughly 20 percent of people who have experienced severe car crashes and roughly half of people who are raped, Holmes stated. Memories fix into brains over the course of about six hours, researchers concluded, and sleeping acts to cement the traumatic memories in place.

A total of 52 subjects in the study were asked to watch disturbing video footage from graphic public safety films. Those in the experimental group played the video game for 12 minutes after viewing the films, while subjects in the control group sat quietly for the same amount of time. People playing the game experienced 51 percent fewer flashbacks than those who did not partake in Tetris.

The tile-dropping game was originally designed by Soviet programmer Alexey Pajitnov and released on June 6, 1984.

Study of how playing Tetris can reduce the effects of PTSD was detailed in the journal Psychological Science.

Photo: Lauren Miller | Flickr

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