Intrusive memories are one of the most harmful symptoms of Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder, or PTSD. Intrusive thoughts are unwanted images, impulses, or urges that can be spontaneous or triggered by something external, and for patients with PTSD, the intrusive thoughts are often recurrent memories of the event that caused the initial trauma. These memories are incredibly distressing and are a core diagnostic feature of PTSD.
A study published in the Journal of Consulting and Clinical Psychology aimed to disrupt these intrusive memories using an uncommon tool: the game of Tetris. For those who aren’t familiar, Tetris is a simple online game about stacking shapes, and has been around since the 1980s. One of the researchers had conducted a previous study that had found that playing Tetris could help suppress intrusive imagery from horror films. Using this precedence, the team set out to determine whether this methodology could be used as a therapy for PTSD as well.
The study was conducted with 20 patients who were being treated for complex PTSD at a psychiatric hospital. In between their regular therapies, they were instructed to write down their intrusive memories on a piece of paper, tear it up, and then play 25 minutes of Tetris. The patients then monitored the frequency of the intrusive memory that they had written down. While patients may have experienced multiple intrusive memories, only the targeted memory that was written down was monitored for frequency of appearance.
Researchers observed that the targeted memory decreased in frequency in the time following the game of Tetris, while other intrusive memories still came at a constant rate. They found that the targeted intrusive memory decreased by an average of 64%, and targeted intrusive memories decreased successfully for 16 out of the 20 patients.
The team developed a theory: both recalling the intrusive memory and playing Tetris are processed in the same area of the brain, and the brain can only handle so much processing. By taking away resources from the intrusive memory to focus on the game of Tetris, the intrusive memory is interrupted. This results in a weakening of the memory, which leads to a decrease of its intrusion (at least, that’s the working hypothesis).
This study was only conducted on a small pool of patients who were already being treated in a psychiatric facility, so future studies might require a larger number of participants, and potentially some control groups. While this research is still in its early stages, researchers are also investigating the neurological mechanisms underlying intrusive memories, and the ways they are able to be disrupted.
Their goal is to be able to provide patients alternatives to traditional therapies, Tetris being one of them because therapy isn’t accessible to everyone. When struggling with such a debilitating mental illness, even the smallest ailments can make a world of difference.