Traumatic experiences can scar the mind in ways that are difficult to understand, let alone reverse. Memories of a distressing event can become consolidated in the brain within hours, and these memories can be the subject of frequent, intrusive flashbacks that cause considerable amounts of distress. Those suffering from flashbacks like these are often suffering from Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD), and must undergo treatments like therapy, lifestyle changes, and medication to get the condition under control.

While one might think that forgetting or ignoring these memories would be the best way to recover, recalling traumatic events under the right circumstances might actually be able to render them less intrusive in the future. Researchers at the MRC Cognition and Brain Science Unit in Cambridge investigated a process called reconsolidation — when a memory becomes more malleable upon recall — and if it could be manipulated to reduce the power of traumatic memories.

When a memory is recalled, it becomes more vulnerable to interventions and disruptions. If a memory does not undergo reconsolidation and become reestablished in the mind without disruption, it can be altered — strengthened or weakened in the mind. A few agents have been shown to disrupt memory restablization — pharmacological agents and electroconvulsive therapy among them — though no simple, noninvasive techniques have been demonstrated to effectively reduce intrusive memories.

The new research from Cambridge just might have found one that might work, and it is simple indeed.

Tetris, the retro block video game, was demonstrated to stunt memories of traumatic events by creating a cognitive blockade.

The experiment consisted of 56 participants that were asked to view short films depicting events such as death, life-threatening situations, and injury. The next day, half of the participants were shown stills from the film that were meant to reactivate their memories. Afterward, the group who had been shown the photos played Tetris for 12 minutes while the second group did nothing.

Researchers found that the group who had their memories reactivated then disrupted by Tetris had fewer memories of the film by 51 percent. They also answered questionnaires used for diagnosing PTSD and scored lower than the other group.

Back in 2009, the study’s lead researcher and Oxford Professor Emily Holmes conducted research to discover if playing Tetris hours after a traumatic incident could help reduce intrusive memories. It was rather difficult to gauge results, though, as the victims of traumatic experiences were often unwilling to play a game just after the incident.

The latest study notes that a critical next step in research would be to see if these findings extend to reducing the psychological impact of real-life events. Another route future research could take based on these findings would be to investigate if computer games like Tetris are affecting our memories of events that are not traumatic.

Source: Holmes E, James E, Bonsall M, Hoppitt L, Tunbridge E, Geddes J. Computer Game Play Reduces Intrusive Memories of Experimental Trauma via Reconsolidation-Update Mechanisms. Psychological Science. 2015.