Can a Video Game Block Drug Cravings?

New research finds that playing the throwback game Tetris can ease cravings for a number of substances. But a prominent neurologist casts doubt on the study, comparing it to the now-debunked “Mozart effect” phenomenon.

Whether your desire is for alcohol, food or cigarettes, a quick game of Tetris is a one-size-fits-all craving crusher that can be accessed just about anywhere.

So say psychologists from Plymouth University in the U.K. and Queensland University of Technology in Australia, who found that playing the computer puzzle game Tetris on a smartphone for as little as three minutes can weaken cravings by up to 24%.

In the study, 31 undergraduates were asked several times a day for a week to report any drug cravings they were feeling. Half were required to play the 1980s tile-matching game Tetris when they experienced cravings — in three-minute sessions — before again reporting their craving levels. The other half sat in front of computer screens, but the game never loaded. Three minutes later, the students who played Tetris reported their drug cravings were 24% weaker than the group that didn't get to play. Importantly, the impact of playing Tetris didn’t wear off over the course of the week (meaning it wasn’t just the novelty of playing a new game that reduced craving levels), and the effects were consistent on all types of cravings.

The science behind the research is based on the “elaborated intrusion” theory, which suggests that mental imagery is central to drug craving. As the theory goes, when we want a beer, we create a picture of the drink in our minds. What the researchers found was that playing a visually interesting game like Tetris distracts the part of the brain that produces the image of that drink (or chocolate cake or cigarette) and the craving is pushed out.

Addiction to Tetris?

But could the Tetris “therapy” backfire and result in cravings for the game itself? Study co-author Jackie Andrade, PhD, thinks not.

“We chose Tetris because it is very visual and involves mental manipulation of the shapes,” Andrade told Promises. “But it is also important that it is not quite as compelling as some of the newer games that give a lot of rewards and incentives to keep playing.”

Andrade went on to talk about how Tetris compares to more traditional ways of battling cravings.

“We haven’t directly compared Tetris and exercise, which has also been shown to reduce cravings,” she said. “They probably work by slightly different routes, with Tetris occupying the cognitive processes that underpin cravings and exercise boosting mood and reducing stress. Music involves less cognitive activity though [it] can help with relaxation and mood — [in general] I would rank Tetris above music, and above exercise, if you have only three minutes.”

Andrade did caution that “for those fighting an addiction, it is very important that any tool like this is integrated within an addiction treatment plan so that people get the full support they need and not just a quick fix.”

Neurologist Questions Validity

Any new method to fight drug cravings and addiction is cause for celebration, and the results of this study, published in the journal Addictive Behaviors, have been cited by more than 250 news outlets and blogs. However, a neurologist who has studied Tetris and its effects on the brain for decades was not impressed. He didn’t want his name used in this article, believing it wasn’t appropriate for him to comment on the study, but said the small sample size and “ratings of cravings” were key concerns.

“A change in ratings is not a good way measure this,” he said. “There is a fundamental problem with change scores on rating scales. Is a rating that goes from five to three the same as the change from two to zero?

“Nothing about the brain is simple,” he added, saying that the results of the study would need to be replicated many times over and with much larger sample sizes before any conclusions could be drawn. He compared it to another highly touted study that eventually went bust.

The “Mozart effect” (named for a popular study in 1993, which purported that adolescents who listened to Mozart did better on reasoning tests) didn’t hold up, he said, “and I think the same will happen here.”

Andrade, however, countered that the study included some 1,200 craving measurements from the 31 participants, which is “plenty for supporting the conclusions we draw and it is important to note that the added information and certainty you get from increased sample size does reach an asymptote, beyond which collecting more data is of little benefit.”

She added that there are debates about which aspects of craving are most important to measure, and “our team has been prominent in arguing for scales that measure craving directly, by asking people to report its strength, frequency and characteristics, rather than the ‘end products’ of craving such as whether people plan to drink or smoke as soon as they get an opportunity. As craving is a conscious state, combining particular thoughts, images and feelings, the best way of assessing it is by asking people what they are feeling and thinking.”

Playing Tetris Reduces PTSD Flashbacks

This isn’t the first time the classic computer game has been used as treatment. Researchers at Oxford University reported that playing Tetris can help people suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder by keeping disturbing memories or flashbacks from surfacing. In the study, 52 healthy people were asked to watch graphic videos showing car accidents and drownings. The next day, the subjects were shown stills from the same films to remind them of the traumatic scenes. Half of the participants were then asked to simply sit quietly, while the other half played Tetris. A week later, the Tetris players reported far fewer flashbacks than their counterparts.

The study builds on previous work by the same Oxford researchers, who, in 2009, found that stacking the colorful Tetris blocks helped diminish PTSD symptoms when the game was played within four hours of the traumatic event — an impractical scenario in most cases. However, the new study showed that visual-spatial games like Tetris can disrupt distressing memories long after the event.

Could Tetris be an effective tool for blocking drug cravings? No one knows for sure, but it certainly could be fun to find out.

By Laura Nott

Posted on September 4th, 2015
Posted in Research

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