Originally, Twitter account @jelenawoehr tweeted the commentary on October 7 2021:
In subsequent threaded tweets, @jelenawoehr continued:
“Literally SIXTY TWO PERCENT fewer intrusive memories after a car crash, just by playing Tetris, in this study: [LINK] … Most well-regarded psychiatric medications do not have such dramatic effects, especially less than a week after a trauma.”
“Not only that, Tetris CAN EVEN HELP WITH ESTABLISHED COMPLEX PTSD! … Which almost *nothing* treats. Again, >50% reduction in unwanted images! (However, for cPTSD, you probably want this intervention to be guided by a professional if at all possible.)”
“Trauma is complicated, professional care is always best, but getting professional help takes time and Tetris as an interim intervention is highly effective, according to numerous studies, and has essentially no risks or side effects.
“tl;dr: ALWAYS HAVE TETRIS ON YOUR PHONE.”
On Imgur, Facebook, and Twitter, the claim proved popular, and Google Trends indicated searches for “Tetris trauma” and “Tetris PTSD” were popular in early October 2021. Unlike many popular Twitter claims, the account added a link to an article published in the journal Psychological Science in August 2015.
Its abstract explained:
Memory of a traumatic event becomes consolidated within hours. Intrusive memories can then flash back repeatedly into the mind’s eye and cause distress. We investigated whether reconsolidation—the process during which memories become malleable when recalled—can be blocked using a cognitive task and whether such an approach can reduce these unbidden intrusions. We predicted that reconsolidation of a reactivated visual memory of experimental trauma could be disrupted by engaging in a visuospatial task that would compete for visual working memory resources. 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. Furthermore, both memory reactivation and playing Tetris were required to reduce subsequent intrusions (Experiment 2), consistent with reconsolidation-update mechanisms. A simple, noninvasive cognitive-task procedure administered after emotional memory has already consolidated (i.e., > 24 hours after exposure to experimental trauma) may prevent the recurrence of intrusive memories of those emotional events.
Google Scholar returned thousands of results for “Tetris” and “trauma” as of October 2021. In April 2017, NPR reported that a then-recent study examined the efficacy of Tetris in preventing post-traumatic stress, further explaining how such research was conducted:
[In April 2017,] a group of researchers from the U.K. and Sweden published a study reporting that playing just 20 minutes of Tetris — in research parlance, a “Tetris-based intervention” — following an automobile accident can help prevent the formation of the painful, intrusive memories that can follow trauma.
The new research looked at 71 patients who had presented to the John Radcliffe Hospital emergency room in Oxford, England, within six hours of being in a car accident. While waiting to be seen, patients were first asked to recall their trauma and recount the worst moments that sprang to mind. (If it helps, they were paid.) They were then randomized to either play Tetris for 20 minutes on a handheld Nintendo DS XL system or to instead fill out an activity log of what they had experienced since arriving at the hospital. The latter group served as the control.
The gamers were found to have 62 percent fewer intrusive memories in the first week after their accident than the control group. What’s more, their bad memories diminished more quickly than in controls.
A study, “Preventing intrusive memories after trauma via a brief intervention involving Tetris computer game play in the emergency department: a proof-of-concept randomized controlled trial,” was published on March 28 2017.
Its abstract explained:
After psychological trauma, recurrent intrusive visual memories may be distressing and disruptive. Preventive interventions post trauma are lacking. Here we test a behavioural intervention after real-life trauma derived from cognitive neuroscience. We hypothesized that intrusive memories would be significantly reduced in number by an intervention involving a computer game with high visuospatial demands (Tetris), via disrupting consolidation of sensory elements of trauma memory. The Tetris-based intervention (trauma memory reminder cue plus c. 20 min game play) vs attention-placebo control (written activity log for same duration) were both delivered in an emergency department within 6 [hours] of a motor vehicle accident. The randomized controlled trial compared the impact on the number of intrusive trauma memories in the subsequent week (primary outcome). Results vindicated the efficacy of the Tetris-based intervention compared with the control condition: there were fewer intrusive memories overall, and time-series analyses showed that intrusion incidence declined more quickly. There were convergent findings on a measure of clinical post-trauma intrusion symptoms at 1 week, but not on other symptom clusters or at 1 month. Results of this proof-of-concept study suggest that a larger trial, powered to detect differences at 1 month, is warranted. Participants found the intervention easy, helpful and minimally distressing. By translating emerging neuroscientific insights and experimental research into the real world, we offer a promising new low-intensity psychiatric intervention that could prevent debilitating intrusive memories following trauma.
In October 2017, another study about Tetris and trauma appeared in the European Journal of Psychotraumatology, titled “Tetris and Word games lead to fewer intrusive memories when applied several days after analogue trauma.” As the title indicated, “word games” were also examined, and its abstract stated in part:
Method: Fifty-four participants were randomly assigned to reactivation+Tetris (visuospatial), reactivation+Word games (verbal), or reactivation-only (no task). They watched an aversive film (day 0) and recorded intrusive memories of the film in diary A. On day 4, memory was reactivated, after which participants played Tetris, Word games, or had no task for 10 minutes. They then kept a second diary (B). Informative hypotheses were evaluated using Bayes factors.
Results: Reactivation+Tetris and reactivation+Word games resulted in relatively fewer intrusions from the last day of diary A to the first day of diary B than reactivation-only (objective 1 and 2). Thus, both tasks were effective even when applied days after analogue trauma. Reactivation-only was not effective. Reactivation+Word games appeared to result in fewer intrusions than reactivation+Tetris (objective 3; modality effect), but this evidence was weak. Explorative analyses showed that Word games were more difficult than Tetris.
Conclusions: Applying a task four days after the trauma film (during memory reconsolidation) was effective. The modality versus working-memory load issue is inconclusive.
That research indicated that “word games” had a marginally stronger effect than Tetris, but that evidence for the stronger effect was “weak.” The authors further noted that “word games” were more cognitively challenging than Tetris.
About ten years [prior to January 2019], Emily Holmes and her team found out that the computer game Tetris can suppress flashbacks caused by horror films in healthy people when played shortly after watching the film. In the current study, the research team tested whether this effect can also help patients with PTSD, for whom the cause of the stressful memories mostly dates back years.
The study involved 20 patients with complex PTSD who were hospitalised at the Department of Psychosomatic Medicine and Psychotherapy for six to eight weeks for regular therapy. In addition to the usual individual and group therapies, they also underwent a special intervention. They wrote one of their stressful memories down on a sheet of paper. Then they tore up the piece of paper — without talking about the content — and played Tetris on a tablet for 25 minutes.
In early October 2021, @jelenawoehr’s thread about Tetris, trauma, and PTSD spread virally across platforms; the first tweet in the thread included a link to published research. Several other attempts have been made to test Tetris (and “word games”) following traumatic events like car accidents, resulting in several pieces of published research validating the conclusion. It appeared that researchers were continuing to examine the potential of the protective effect, and that the tweet’s advice was solid — if unexpected.