The Unexpected Health Benefits of Tetris

New research shows clearing rows of polygons may also help clear minds of addiction cravings.

National Journal
Aug. 14, 2015, 7:29 a.m.

My crav­ing for a first cof­fee of the day hits around 9:15 a.m. I don’t drink cof­fee the first thing in the morn­ing. (What’s the point of be­ing alert on a Metro com­mute?) But by 9:15, my ad­dic­tion be­comes hard to ig­nore. I can visu­al­ize the cof­fee: the grounds be­ing ac­tiv­ated by pip­ing hot wa­ter, the feel of a warm mug in my hands, its aroma beck­on­ing me in­to the world of the wake­ful.

I’m not alone in this ex­per­i­ence. A crav­ing — wheth­er it be for cof­fee, al­co­hol, junk food, drugs, sex, or some oth­er vice — of­ten takes the form of an visu­al fantasy, re­search­ers in the journ­al Ad­dict­ive Be­ha­vi­ors de­scribe in a new study on how to curb these de­sires.

Play­ing Tet­ris for three minutes de­creased crav­ing strength for ad­dict­ive sub­stances by ap­prox­im­ately one-fifth.

“Mo­tiv­a­tion to use a drug or con­sume food is driv­en by the ima­gined ex­per­i­ence of achiev­ing that goal,” the au­thors, from uni­versit­ies in Eng­land and Aus­tralia, ex­plain.

The key then to curb the crav­ing, they hy­po­thes­ize, is to dis­tract from that visu­al fantasy.

Enter Tet­ris, the Rus­si­an video game cre­ated in 1984. Since its in­cep­tion, the game has thrilled and in­furi­ated play­ers, en­ti­cing them to spend hours stack­ing ir­reg­u­lar poly­gons in­to or­derly rows.

The study’s re­search­ers thought that play­ing a game of Tet­ris would provide the per­fect dis­trac­tion from ad­dict­ive crav­ings. The game en­gages both the brain’s visu­al and spa­tial sys­tems — which are used while in­dul­ging in a crav­ing fantasy — and keeps these parts of the brain dis­trac­ted long enough to al­low the crav­ings to sub­side.

Ex­per­i­menters gave 31 par­ti­cipants iPod touches with Tet­ris in­stalled. For a week, the test sub­jects were in­struc­ted to play the game sev­er­al times per day, all the while be­ing peppered with ques­tions as­sess­ing their levels of crav­ings. A con­trol group just got the ques­tions without play­ing the game.

The res­ults: “Play­ing Tet­ris for three minutes de­creased crav­ing strength for ad­dict­ive sub­stances (nicot­ine, caf­feine, and al­co­hol), food and drink, and oth­er crav­ings (e.g., sex, gam­ing, ex­er­cise, and so­cial in­ter­ac­tion) by 13.9 per­cent­age points — ap­prox­im­ately one-fifth — throughout the sev­en-day study peri­od.”

Re­du­cing a crav­ing by a fifth sounds pretty small, the au­thors ad­mit, but “it could be just enough to turn a crav­ing that feels un­bear­able in­to one that you can tol­er­ate un­til it goes away,” Jack­ie An­drade, one of the study’s au­thors, ex­plained in press ma­ter­i­als.

“It doesn’t have to be Tet­ris,” she said. “It could be Candy Crush; it could be any­thing that is visu­ally in­ter­est­ing and chan­ging.”

What’s prom­ising from the find­ings is that the ef­fect per­sisted the whole week. “An in­ter­ven­tion that worked solely be­cause it was nov­el and un­usu­al would have di­min­ish­ing be­ne­fits over time as par­ti­cipants be­came fa­mil­i­ar with it,” the au­thors con­clude. However, the study is lim­ited by a re­l­at­ively short time frame. Per­haps by a third or fourth week, Tet­ris’s powers to dis­tract would di­min­ish.

Tet­ris, in­creas­ingly, is be­com­ing a re­search tool in men­tal health. In oth­er stud­ies, re­search­ers have found Tet­ris is use­ful in block­ing pain­ful memor­ies in pa­tients with post-trau­mat­ic-stress dis­order, an ef­fect that’s not eas­ily rep­lic­ated with oth­er games. And rather than fry­ing a young per­son’s brain, re­search­ers have found evid­ence that play­ing Tet­ris may aid cog­nit­ive de­vel­op­ment.

We’ll get you star­ted on that right here.


Tet­ris Flash Ar­cade Game
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