Playing Tetris Can Prevent Intrusive Memories After A Traumatic Event

by Kimberly Zapata
Tetris game

If you grew up an ’80s baby — like me — you probably played a lot of Tetris. Introduced to the world in 1984, the puzzle game was perfect for its time. Its graphics were simple. Its gameplay was straightforward, and it was highly addictive. I spent the vast majority of my childhood trying to align these digital building blocks. But did you know there is more to this 8-bit game than meets the eye? It’s true. According to research, Tetris didn’t just change our lives, it altered our minds: playing Tetris can (and does) prevent intrusive memories after trauma.

The study, conducted at the Karolinska Institute in Sweden, was designed to determine if playing games — like Tetris — could prevent unpleasant, recurrent, and intrusive memories after a traumatic event. “Our hypothesis was that after a trauma, patients would have fewer intrusive memories if they got to play Tetris as part of a short behavioural intervention while waiting in the hospital emergency department,” Emily Holmes, a professor of psychology at Karolinska Institute’s Department of Clinical Neuroscience who led the study, said.

“Since the game is visually demanding, we wanted to see if it could prevent the intrusive aspects of the traumatic memories from becoming established i.e. by disrupting a process known as memory consolidation,” Holmes added — and their hypothesis held. By following 71 victims of motor vehicle accidents, researchers found that those who played Tetris during recovery had fewer intrusive memories than those in the control group. They also found said memories diminished more quickly, which fit the researchers hypothesis.

The former group played 20 minutes of Tetris on a handheld Nintendo DS XL system while the latter filled out an activity log of what they had experienced.

“Anyone can experience trauma,” Holmes said. “It would make a huge difference to a great many people if we could create simple behavioral psychological interventions using computer games to prevent post-traumatic suffering and spare them these grueling intrusive memories.”

This is not the first or only time the puzzle game has been linked to trauma and PTSD. A 2017 study found playing Tetris — and similar logic-based games — could reduce the amount of intrusive thoughts one experiences after a traumatic event, especially when said interventions are made in the first 24 hours. This study followed 54 participants. And a 2019 study found Tetris may alleviate flashbacks associated with PTSD.

“Tetris could help people with post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) to alleviate involuntarily recurring visual memories of traumatic experiences,” the study stated. It could be used as a treatment tool for those with PTSD.

As for why, the jury is out. However, researchers suspect the reaction is similar to what occurs during EMDR — or eye movement desensitization or reprocessing — therapy.

“Eye movement desensitization and reprocessing (EMDR) therapy is an interactive psychotherapy technique used to relieve psychological stress,” an article on Healthline explains. “During EMDR therapy sessions, you relive traumatic or triggering experiences in brief doses while the therapist directs your eye movements. EMDR is thought to be effective because recalling distressing events is often less emotionally upsetting when your attention is diverted,” as it would be with Tetris or other like games. Your focus is shifted from the trauma to the phone or TV.

Of course, it should go without saying, but Tetris is not a substitute for therapy. Trauma is complex, and those who have lived through such events and/or have PTSD should seek proper treatment. What’s more, the studies cited have limitations; the size of each is relatively small, as is the scope. Plus, trauma varies — from person to person and case to case. However, as someone living with complex PTSD I can tell you having another tool in my shed is integral. Knowing a game can help distract me is key. It is also an exciting notion to feel like something so simple can ground me and help me stay in control.

So if you struggle with flashbacks and/or intrusive thoughts or have just survived a traumatic event, rest. Recover. Recoup, and boot up this badass game from the ’80s. Shifting your focus from trauma to Tetris may help you, in the interim and long run. It is literally a mental health first aid tool, one which you can carry in your pocket and put on your phone.