Tetris, post-trauma

On March 4, 2022 I was in a car crash. The car was totalled. I won’t share any more details except to say that while everyone walked away from the accident intact, it was a horrible experience. The good news is that the intrusive memories/flashbacks only lasted for three days. I think that might have been because I played a lot of Tetris in the six hours after the crash. 

Years ago I read a Twitter thread describing a study published by a group of researchers from the UK and Sweden. They reported that a “Tetris-based intervention” (playing 20 minutes of Tetris) following a car crash can help prevent the formation of painful, intrusive memories after the trauma. The study was small – they only looked at 71 patients in the emergency room within six hours of being in a car accident. (They did pay them.) While waiting for care, patients were asked to recount the worse moments of their trauma. They were then split into two random groups, one of which played Tetris on a handheld device, and the other group as the control group filled out an activity log of what they’d experienced since arriving at the hospital. The people who played Tetris were found to have 62% less intrusive memories in the first week than the control group. Most psychiatric medications don’t have such dramatic effects, especially in the first week. The Tetris players’ bad memories faded more quickly as well. 

Emily Holmes, a clinical psychology researcher at the University of Oxford, believes that playing Tetris (or other visuospatial games) within six hours of a traumatic event can interfere with memory consolidation, allowing for an uncoupling from the brain’s emotional centres.

Did I alter my neural circuitry through my eyes while I was still in the “reconstitution” phase of memory when my brain was actively processing the trauma? Did aligning a rain of falling blocks into perfect rows of ten actually help? I don’t know. The researchers are seeking funding to do much bigger studies.

To be clear: I’m not recommending Tetris in place of professional care. But given that professional care is not always immediately available (or accessible at all) it seems like a good idea to have Tetris on your phone. I’m glad I did.

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