Topic: Violence and abuse

Stopping unpleasant intrusive memories: The case of visuospatial processing after exposure to emotional imagery

A key symptom and driver behind post-traumatic stress disorder is recurring, involuntary, and intrusive memories of the traumatic event. If we can reduce the frequency of such intrusions, we might also in turn alleviate other symptoms within this debilitating disorder. Previous research has shown that playing Tetris disrupt the representation and restabilization of previously consolidated memories. This, in turn, result in significantly fewer intrusions. The present project seeks to fully understand the mechanisms underlying this process.

2017 This project is ongoing 2021

Project Members

Main objective

The background for the present project is the recent finding that performing a visuospatial task after the experience of trauma, or after the reactivation of a traumatic memory, can significantly reduce the number of intrusive memories a person experiences in the following week (Holmes, James, Coode-Bate, & Deeprose, 2009; James et al.  2015; Iyadurai.2017).

A key symptom of post-traumatic stress disorder is recurring, involuntary, and intrusive memories of the traumatic event. Clinical models of PTSD suggest that it is the sensory-perceptual rather than verbal/conceptual processing of a traumatic event that is associated with pathology. Given that trauma flashbacks occur in the sensory-perceptual domain, mainly in the form of visuospatial images, the performance of a visuospatial task (like playing Tetris) during consolidation or reconsolidation of a traumatic memory may reduce the number of subsequent flashbacks, through competition for visuospatial working memory-resources. Indeed, this is exactly what has been shown in two studies conducted by Holmes et al. (2009) and James et al. (2015). In the Holmes et al. (2009) study, 30 minutes after viewing a series of short film clips containing disturbing images, one half of participants played a video game requiring rapid mental visuospatial manipulation of three-dimensional blocks (Tetris), and all participants subsequently recorded the number of intrusive trauma-related images they experienced in an intrusion diary over the following week. Participants in the Tetris-condition reported significantly fewer intrusive images than participants in the control condition.

In short, Tetris, as a brief self-help app-based intervention has the potential to play an important part in the future of mental health care for all traumatized individuals by circumventing known help-seeking barriers, reducing social inequalities in mental health and quality of life. In doing so, the project will begin to untangle one of the great societal challenges of our time.

Subsidiary objectives

The project group aims to publish findings in high-ranking, international, peer-reviewed journals. The researchers in the project will also deliver papers at conferences and study participants and stakeholder will receive a final report describing key findings. Findings will also be incorporated in the aforementioned projects at NKVTS and future grant proposals to ERC and NFR.


Experimental setup in NKVTS’ lab.

Further information

The first series of experiments was conducted in 2016/17 at the Department of Psychology with Professor Tim Brennen as principal investigator.