Tuesday, November 11, 2014

An Unexpected Health Benefit of Computer Games – Reduced Nicotine & Food Cravings

Can you "game" the system of addictive behaviors to reduce cravings? A recent study suggests that you can – that you can subdue your addictive cravings, such as those for cigarettes, food, or alcohol, simply by playing certain PC games for a few minutes.

Gaming can be good for you?

We reported in 2012 on the potential health benefits, and even social benefits, of computer gaming and video games. While the same potential risks from too much gaming or age-inappropriate games are still there (discussed in the 2012 gaming article), a 2014 study adds further grist to the mill of the arguments in favor of gaming.

The research psychologists focused on the measurable effects generated from study participants who were playing the computer game Tetris, observing that the game-playing activity lessened the severity of alcohol, food, and nicotine cravings.

In this study, the psychologists witnessed that the mental-visual stimulation experienced when players rapidly manipulated the Tetris game shapes distracted participants' brains from picturing food, alcohol, or tobacco products and, consequently, the associated cravings.

The study also revealed that the positive effects kicked in after as little as three minutes of gameplay. It appears that the visual stimulation inherent in the game Tetris reduced cravings associated with alcohol, cigarettes, and food.

How researchers discovered the positive effect of gaming

The science behind the study is based on "Elaborated Intrusion Theory," which suggests that imagery is central to craving and that, therefore, a visually-based tasks should decrease craving and craving imagery.

The research, conducted at the Plymouth University Cognition Institute, tested this theory using 121 study participants who were asked if they were experiencing a craving and, if so, were then instructed to rate the strength, vividness, and intrusiveness of the craving. Following this, the participants either played Tetris for three minutes or, for participants placed in the control group, watched what appeared to be a computer program trying to load for three minutes, effectively receiving no visual stimulation.

Before task completion, craving scores of both groups were essentially the same. However, after the three minute period, those participants who played Tetris had significantly lower craving and less vivid craving imagery than the control group.

The conclusion: loading up the visual-spatial part of our memory has the potential to reduce our naturally occurring cravings. The researchers also concluded that Tetris might be a useful way for just about anyone to tackle cravings outside the laboratory in everyday life.

Understanding the science of cravings

Earlier studies on addictive behaviors have shown cravings to be a trigger that launches undesirable activities such as binge eating, giving up on weight loss programs, and even the onset of obesity.

Cravings are an everyday occurrence; we all experience them. Cravings are usually associated to negative effects. When experiencing cravings that we can't ignore, we either lose resistance and engage in the undesirable behavior (such as breaking a diet, overeating, smoking, or drinking) or, even if we are able to resist the temptations of the cravings, we often experience undesirable distress or distraction.

What happens is that an internal or external trigger gives rise to a spontaneous thought that we are either able to ignore or that latches on, becoming elaborated. When elaboration happens, mental images are developed and held onto, overwhelming other mental faculties, such as the desire to resist the negative behavior.

The power of these images in the mind's eye is substantial. For example, an earlier study showed that alcohol-craving imagery resulted in a majority of study participants being able to mentally "taste" the substance they craved.

Why Tetris can short-circuit addictive behaviors

It turns out that working memory – the place in our minds where visual cravings occur – has a limited load capacity. As the new study showed, involving the working memory system with an irrelevant task load, such as playing Tetris, overwhelms that visual-spatial "sketchpad." The result is that this unrelated task can short-circuit the cravings for food, alcohol, or cigarettes – effectively distracting the mind and dulling the addictive cravings.

While this short-circuiting effect may work with other similar games, Tetris is specifically known to load the visual-spatial part of working memory. In Tetris, the player can only keep the game going if they rotate and move geometric shapes very quickly to achieve the goal of completing a row of shapes without gaps.

How you can game the system of addictive behaviors

If you want to try this same experiment at home, you will find that Tetris and several freeware knockoff versions of Tetris are available for download from the Internet. The next time you are experiencing cravings common to tobacco, alcohol, or foods, open your computer or mobile device right away and play a few rounds of Tetris.

You too may find that Tetris works to manage your cravings or other related imagery.  Worst-case scenario, you'll get to enjoy the pleasure of a short game break. 
As an added bonus, if you have any trouble with lazy eye syndrome, a 2013 study showed that Tetris can also improve problems with lazy eye.

Ric Moxley
Contributing Writer

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