psychology: worry beads block formation of bad memories

In many cultures, people repetitively finger strands of beads to help them deal with their worries. Now British researchers may have figured out why this kind of distraction works. A report by Emily Holmes of University College London and her colleagues in the March issue of the Journal of Experimental Psychology: General suggests that performing a “visuospatial pattern task” during a trauma may help curb flashbacks of the disturbing event. The researchers had volunteers perform various tasks as they watched a graphic film of real-life car crashes replete with screaming victims and severed body parts. In one experiment, some volunteers tapped out a repetitive pattern on a keyboard while watching the film, while others simply watched. The viewers who tapped suffered fewer intrusive memories of the film in the following week compared to the other volunteers, researchers said. Holmes said she believes the same types of memory may be used to process both the keyboard tapping and the traumatic images of the film, so performing a pattern task during a trauma may reduce the retention of that memory, leading to fewer flashbacks.

This news brief appeared in the Discoveries column of the Boston Globe’s Health/Science section on 3/09/2004.
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