Playing a video game a day after reactivating the intrusive memories that you want to get rid of may reduce their occurrence over time, a study says.
Unwanted, intrusive visual memories are a core feature of stress-and trauma-related clinical disorders such as post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), but they can also crop up in everyday life.
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"Although people may wish to forget traumatic memories, they may benefit from bringing them back to mind, at least under certain conditions - those which render them less intrusive," said study co-author Ella James from University of Oxford.
In two experiments, the researchers had participants view films that contained scenes of traumatic content (for example, footage highlighting the dangers of drunk driving) as a way of experimentally inducing intrusive memories.
Participants then returned to the lab 24 hours after watching the film.
In the first experiment, half of the participants had their memories of the film reactivated by viewing selected stills from the film footage, followed by a 10-minute filler task, and then 12 minutes of playing the computer game Tetris.
The other participants completed only the filler task and then sat quietly for 12 minutes.
The participants who had their memories reactivated and played Tetris experienced significantly fewer intrusive memories in a diary over the next week than the participants who came to the lab and simply sat quietly for the equivalent period of time.
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A second experiment with four groups replicated the results from first experiment.
Importantly, it revealed that neither reactivation nor Tetris was enough to produce these effects on their own - only participants who experienced both components showed fewer intrusive memories over time.