"Craving is a common problem for people trying to quit junk food, smoking or other drugs," co-author Jackie Andrade told Reuters Health in an email. "It is unpleasant and makes people feel that they have to wait until the right moment to quit," said Andrade, from Plymouth University in the UK.
Researchers had used visual games to interrupt cravings before, but only when they had induced those cravings first, she said. For this study, people's cravings happened – or did not happen – naturally.
"Naturally occurring cravings might be harder to disrupt because they are triggered by internal states like hunger," Andrade said.
"We chose Tetris because we wanted a task that would be interesting, demanding and highly visual." She and her team had 119 college-aged, primarily female, students describe what, if anything, they were craving, and how badly. Then they instructed the students to play Tetris for three minutes.
Cravings got weaker
For half of the students, selected at random, the game worked fine. For the other half, only a load screen and error message displayed and they could not play.
Then all of the students filled out the craving questionnaire again. Two thirds of them reported craving something at the beginning of the test: 58 wanted food or a drink, 10 wanted caffeine and 12 wanted nicotine. The remaining 39 didn't crave anything initially.
Cravings got weaker over time for everyone. But they weakened faster and to a greater extent among participants who played Tetris, the authors wrote in the journal Appetite. For instance, one tool they used measured craving strength on a scale from 1 to 100.
Among people who reported initially craving something, the strength of those cravings fell from 59 to 45 for Tetris players, on average, and from 58 to 55 in the comparison group.
Researchers think this works because concentrating on the various Tetris shapes distracts the brain from picturing food, or whatever else a person wants. "When we want something really badly, it is hard to think about anything else – and the experience is a very sensory one," said David Kavanagh, from the Queensland University of Technology in Brisbane, Australia.
Engaging brain functions
"It engages our imagination and that can be a real torture," he said. "But it also gives us a hint about how we can deal with cravings: if we can do something that engages the same brain functions, we can blunt the craving, and make it easier to resist the temptation." Kavanagh was not involved in the new study but has done similar research.
Any visual or multisensory activity might have the same effect as Tetris, Andrade said. She found in an earlier study that making shapes out of plastic led to a similar outcome. But the researchers did not measure how long the reduction in cravings lasted, and it might not be very long, she said.
However, people trying to lose weight could try incorporating Tetris into their lives, Andrade said. Lotte van Dillen, from the Leiden Institute for Brain and Cognition at Leiden University in the Netherlands, agreed.
"I think it is important that people are motivated to play the game for it to be an effective tool to fight cravings," van Dillen, who was not involved in the research, told Reuters Health. "And as a positive side effect you may actually become a very skilful player."
(Picture: Tetris game from Shutterstock)