Subject: Tetris & PTSD
From: Alex Kemp
Date: Saturday, 11 July 2015 17:57:19 +0100
To: Oliver Kemp, Micaela Kemp, Liisa Kemp, Davin Kemp (play online)


A fun computer game originally written by Russian engineer Alexey Pajitnov, which became world-wide famous following it’s release on June 6, 1984 on to the Game Boy, IBM PC & many, many other platforms.


Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder. A no-fun-at-all medical condition, initiated by a single, or continuous, highly-stressful event(s) or situation(s) which gets lodged within the mind & body of the individual in such a way that they become subject to intrusive flash-backs that they cannot control. Soldiers & citizens in wartime are typical victims, with the Korean (1950s) & Vietnam (1960s) wars as probably the first in which PTSD was so-named, but torture, rape and car accidents are other examples of events that can cause those involved to develop PTSD.

The medical profession has no cure for mental illness, including PTSD. A report in The New Scientist on 6 July 2015 suggests that playing Tetris can help.

Original Tetris arcade game (Kichigai Mentat via Wikimedia Commons (CC BY 2.0))

I was taught 30 years ago that our memories & experiences are cemented within ourselves whilst we sleep. That has recently re-surfaced as “the latest research”. This report, by Emily Holmes, a Visiting Professor in Clinical Psychology and Programme Leader at the Medical Research Council Cognition and Brain Sciences Unit in Cambridge, UK, goes one step further. It says that the chances of developing PTSD can be reduced even after sleep if the individual plays Tetris. That is such a mad idea that it most surely has to have a chance of working.

Emily states that there is a window of ~6 hours following an event capable of inducing PTSD during which “memories are consolidated and cemented in the mind ... sleeping on the memory strengthens it further”. Emily & her team reported on early research on this in January 2009, stating that playing Tetris immediately following traumatic events can reduce PTSD.

(Personally, I suspect that I know exactly what the response would be to suggesting installing a Tetris arcade like the above into a Rape Crisis Centre)

In December 2009 other researchers reported on a non-invasive method for “extinction of reconsolidated memories”. (What?!) In brief, PTSD researchers knew that re-activating the original event (with images, sounds, etc.) would cause it to become ‘plastic’ again in the sufferer. This supposition was because of the effect of giving drugs that block brain cells from making new proteins - depending on the timing, the memories would be erased:-

  1. Initiation
    A terrible event occurs within someone’s life.
  2. Consolidation
    (6 hours) The natural process of life causes it to be cemented within their mind & body (whether they want it to or not), capped by the fact of sleep.
  3. PTSD
    If unable to reconcile themselves to what happened, they may become subject to intrusive, traumatic flash-backs that they cannot control.
  4. Re-Initiation
    External links to the original trauma will induce memories of the original event.
  5. Pause
    (1 hour)
  6. Re-Consolidation
    (6 hours) The memories begin to consolidate within the system, again.
  7. Extinction
    Thus, if the drugs were given during stage 6 it would prevent the memories being laid down again.

The problem here was that those drugs were deeply toxic, and was wholesale memory erasure a good thing anyway? The researchers used an extinction therapy previously used for PTSD (repetitive exposure to frightening triggers within safe environments) but applied it only during the re-consolidation phase. It worked with both rats & men. Further, if applied outside of that phase it did not work.

Emily’s team thus took that 2009 research into account & applied Tetris gameplay during a Re-consolidation phase. And, good lord, it worked.

The info on effects of sleep & learning are so strong that the current advice is that the very best thing that you can do to fully learn, or revise for, a lesson or exam is... to have a good night’s sleep.

Alex Kemp