One of the topics that came up in my talk with Dr. Aikins regarded a study about the effectiveness of video games – Tetris in particular – when used as treatment for Post Traumatic Stress Disorder. Though he was not familiar with this particular study, he did see the benefit of thought suppression offered by such methods. Intrigued about the topic in general, I decided to follow a virtual trail of breadcrumbs to see where it lead.
I started with the original paper, “Can Playing the Computer Game ‘Tetris’ Reduce the Build-Up of Flashbacks for Trauma? A Proposal from Cognitive Science,” by Emily A. Holmes, Ella L. James, Thomas Coode-Bate, and Catherine Deeprose. It should be noted that this study did not examine combat veterans with PTSD, but when examining treatment, the causation does not have to be the same. The study acknowledges that there are successful treatments for PTSD, but “cognitive vaccines” to prevent flashback development following exposure to trauma is lacking. According to the study, “The rationale for a ‘cognitive vaccine’ approach is as follows: Trauma flashbacks are sensory-perceptual, visuospatial mental images. Visuospatial cognitive tasks selectively compete for resources required to generate mental images. Thus, a visuospatial computer game (e.g. ‘Tetris’) will interfere with flashbacks.” For the study, participants were shown a film meant to induce trauma, then were split into two groups: a group that played “Tetris” afterward, and a group that did not. The research indicated that the group that played the game following the film experienced less flashbacks while leaving deliberate memory recall of the trauma intact. In essence, the hypothesis was supported.
The study relied heavily on the use of a traumatic film, and the use of a visuospatial grounding task; i.e., the spatial relationships and the manipulation of such in “Tetris.” It built upon the data gathered in the most frequently cited source in study, “The Influence of a Visuospatial Grounding Task on Intrusive Images of a Traumatic Film,” by A.D. Stuart, E.A. Holmes and C.R. Brewin. (This was not an easy article to track down, as most places require that I purchase it. Fortunately, through the use of DeepDyve, I was able to rent it for free for a short period of time.) This study was similar in intent to the above “Tetris” study in regards to whether or not visuospatial manipulation shortly after a trauma (again, a trauma-inducing film) would reduce flashbacks while retaining deliberate memory recall. In this study, instead of a video game, participants were tasked with constructing shapes out of plasticine (modelling clay). Also, instead of being split into two groups, the film itself was split into two parts: during the first part, the participants used the clay, and during the second part they did not. As predicted, the first part yielded far fewer flashbacks.
Like the previous study, this one built upon the results of an earlier work; this time, the frequently-cited “Trauma Films, Information Processing, and Intrusive Memory Development,” by E.A. Holmes (again), Christopher R. Brewin and Richard G. Hennessey. Here, the nonclinical participants performed a variety of tasks while watching a trauma-inducing film. While those experiencing a verbal distraction experienced an increase in flashbacks, those that performed visuospatial tapping tasks experienced decreased flashbacks. It should also be noted that, “participants in the visuospatial tapping condition did not report paying less attention to the controls,” which rules out the possibility that those subjects were more concerned with their task and thus not paying attention to the film.
It’s interesting to follow a trail of research, to see what studies built upon the works of previous researchers. Here, there definitely seems to be a link between performing visuospatial tasks – be it tapping out sequences, building with modeling clay or playing “Tetris” – and reducing the flashback effects of post-traumatic stress disorder. The implication is that if sufferers can be exposed to such treatment early enough and given a “cognitive vaccine,” if you will, then the long-term effects of the ailment can be greatly reduced.
In other words, we need to send our men and women overseas care-packages with Play-Doh and “Tetris,” and hope like hell the military complex doesn’t laugh them into oblivion.