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Thursday, December 13, 2012

Tetris, PTSD, Working Memory, and Addiction

So, there I was, minding my own business, when I started to read an article about the game Tetris:

Stories on the brain have always fascinated me, and this one proved interesting because of the theoretical work going on in the scientific world just in explaining why people become 'hooked' on this game.  In short, the main reason has to do with increased brain metabolism that occurs with all of the tiny tasks that Tetris demands:

If you recall the previous post about Working Memory, there you have it.  Tetris fills the WM with lots of small tasks that crowd out all other thought processes and fills the brain with neuro-chemicals... now you have a high.  This high is powerful enough to reprogram the brain, and is being looked at as a way to treat PTSD:

There is a drawback: the effect of the game's high wears off once the brain 'learns' the game and less resources are needed to play.  Now, you have one of the elements of addiction... chasing the high.

Heroin addicts will tell you that nothing is better than the first high on the drug.  People will spend years trying to recreate it.  This is often called 'chasing the dragon.'  It never works because it is a chemical illusion caused by the brain's first reaction to the drug.  Like the surprise scene in a movie, the more times you watch the movie, the less surprised you are.

But, what about the PTSD angle?  How can a game help?  Very simple: the human mind wants a sense of control, and PTSD is caused by a sense of helplessness in the face of a disaster.  Tetris is an easy way to regain the sense of control, because it is an easy game.  If PTSD memories are crowding the WM, the mind uses the sense of power from Tetris to 'put away' the 'unfinished business' of traumatic experiences.

Another analogy is that of a child who is delaying the finish of his dinner.  This is the mind on PTSD... a child versus Brussel Sprouts.  The mind does not want to 'put away' the trauma and store it, but would rather avoid it so as not to internalize these memories.

Then, out comes a 'dessert' like Tetris.  You can't have a mouthful of Tetris while chewing on other thoughts, and so the mind 'puts away the traumatic memories from the WM in order to play the gratifying game.

Addicts do the same thing with their own addictions, trading alcoholism for gambling, or pornography for drinking.  The mind can go from one distracting 'dessert' to another.  In the case of addictions, the only real solution is working through the issues that occupy the WM.  The 12 Steps are all about clearing these unresolved matters so the mind can focus on the tasks at hand.

What I would like to see is a study that compares people with 'cleared' WMs versus those with addiction issues to see who gets 'more hooked' on Tetris...

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