Video games. A time-honored way to put off homework, spend time with friends, and rewire our brains.
In 2009, Oxford University researchers found a possible application of certain video games for trauma survivors.
They obviously weren't studying modern-day shoot-em-ups like "Grand Theft Auto." They went back to the basics with one of the oldies: Tetris.
Participants in the study first watched video re-enactments of traumatic events, like people getting hit by cars or drowning in the ocean. In the immediate hours that followed, when memories are "consolidated" for long-term storage, they were assigned one of three tasks: Tetris, trivia, or no task in particular.
Tetris was found to significantly reduce the frequency of flashbacks if played within four hours of a traumatic event.
The researchers attributed the decreased recurrence of flashbacks to the type of brain work required for Tetris. Maneuvering and piecing together Tetris blocks somehow blocks the cognitive pathway for flashbacks.
Go Tetris, right? Well, further research uncovered even more benefits of the classic game for dealing with trauma.
A follow-up study showed participants videos of traumatic events, then reminded them of those events with still images a day later. One group was then asked to play Tetris, and the other was asked to do nothing at all.
The outcome was remarkable, wrote the researchers: "We showed that intrusive memories were virtually abolished by playing the computer game Tetris following a memory-reactivation task 24 hr after initial exposure to experimental trauma."
There's a lot of hope surrounding these findings, and a perusal of the day's headlines are often a clue as to why.
Countless soldiers, refugees, victims of sexual assault, and survivors of mass shootings and accidents are burdened by memories of trauma every day.
We have treatments to help people manage PTSD, but this could eventually lead us toward concrete strategies for stopping it before it takes hold.
What's better? It's a drug-free and relatively low-tech way to help people get on with their lives. Plus, anyone can play Tetris for free on the Internet.
It may seem silly that we're talking about a video game as a preventive therapy, but Emily Holmes, one of the lead researchers behind these studies, has an answer for that.
“Think of it like hand washing," she told New Scientist. "Hand washing is not a fancy intervention, but it can reduce all sorts of illness. This is similar — if the experimental result translates, it could be a cheap preventative measure informed by science."