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Playing 'Tetris' Reduces Drug Cravings, Study Says

Playing just a three-minute round can lower your cravings for drugs, sex, and food by 20 percent.

by Daniel Oberhaus
Aug 17 2015, 1:57pm

Photo: Lauren Miller/Flickr

There really is nothing quite as satisfying as the feeling when a tetrimino falls perfectly into place in Tetris. In fact, it is so satisfying that researchers have shown that playing Tetris a few times a day for just three-minutes can significantly reduce cravings for other things like drugs, sex, and food by up to 20 percent.

In a joint study conducted by Plymouth University and the Queensland University of Technology, researchers text messaged a cohort of 31 undergraduates, ages 18-27, seven times a day over the course of the week and prompted them to report any cravings they happened to be experiencing when they received the text message.

According to the researchers, cravings were recorded from about 30 percent of the prompts, of which roughly two-thirds were for food and non-alcoholic drinks, 21 percent categorized as addictive substances or "drugs" (coffee, cigarettes, and alcohol) and 16 percent belonged in a miscellaneous category, which included things like sex and video games.

The researchers instructed 15 of these participants to follow up their report by playing a game of Tetris for three minutes on an iPod before reporting their craving levels again. The results from the study found that those students who followed up their cravings with a game of Tetris were able to lower their craving levels from 70 percent to 56 percent.

Participants played the game about 40 times on average and according to the researchers, the effect that playing Tetris had on the participant's cravings did not diminish the more they played the game. Furthermore, they found that the game was still effective in reducing higher levels of cravings for subjects who were under the influence of alcohol.

"This is the first demonstration that cognitive interference can be used outside the lab to reduce cravings for substances and activities other than eating," said Jackie Andrade, a professor at Plymouth University's School of Psychology in a statement. "We think the Tetris effect happens because craving involves imagining the experience of consuming a particular substance or indulging in a particular activity. Playing a visually interesting game like Tetris occupies the mental processes that support that imagery."

According to EI theory, the motivation to use a drug or do a certain activity is the imagined experiencing of what that will feel like to do that drug or activity. The idea behind making you the participants play Tetris (which has been previously shown to help block distressing intrusive mental images) is to divert their cognition to something other than imagining how great it will feel to smoke a cigarette or drink a beer.

There are a variety of ways to combat cravings with cognitive interference, although visual stimulation such as Tetris has been shown to be effective in combating the widest range of cravings. Other mentally engaging tasks that are entirely unrelated to the craving, such as reciting the ABC's backwards, have shown less than admirable results.

While the authors did not test the results of Tetris on those with cravings for harder substances, they recommended further research in this direction for their Tetris theory.