11 January 2011

Disrupting harmful memories

Post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) is now recognised and accepted as a real medical condition that can affect anyone, but which is most prevalent in people whose jobs place them in situations where they are likely to witness horrifying events.

When such events occur, such as following the 7/7 London bombings or after a particularly harrowing Police raid, people are often given time off to get over the initial shock.  However, recent research findings from Oxford University suggest that this may not be the best thing to do.

As part of their research they showed 40 healthy volunteers a series of traumatic images of injuries sustained in motoring accidents.  After waiting for 30 minutes, half the volunteers played the computer game Tetris for 10 minutes while the other half did nothing.  The volunteers were then asked to record each occasion during the following week when they had "flashbacks" to the images.

The result was that the volunteers who had played Tetris experienced significantly fewer flashbacks, suggesting that their memory of the images was less strong.

Dr Emily Holmes, who led the research, concluded that the reason the Tetris player had fewer flashbacks was because concentrating on the game so soon after seeing the images disrupted the brain's ability to commit the images to long-term memory.  She explains that this is because, in forming memories, the brain must process the information in two ways; one sensory and the other analytical.   Given the brain's limited ability to do more than a few things at any one time, such as performing a numerical calculation while holding a conversation, the playing of the game therefore interfered with its ability to complete the process of committing the traumatic image information to memory.

Although this was only a small study, it does suggest that the best course of action for anyone who is unfortunate enough to find themselves in a situation where they are likely to experience PTSD is to get them busy with something else as soon as possible.

For everyone else the lesson to be learned is that "down time" is important to both memory and the processing of information.  So next time you leave one meeting and rush straight into the next, just remember that while being "back-to-back" may look impressive, it is in fact limiting your ability to process information and remember important facts.

1 comment:

  1. Interesting point. I am now retired but used to work as the CEO of a large company and always blanked out 30 minutes following any meeting to cogitate on what had been discussed and to initiate any follow-on actions I thought necessary. People who rushed from one meeting to the next all day I dismissed as professional meeting-goers.


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