The Tetris Effect
I read a recent article with the headline, Playing Tetris ‘can help stop cravings for food, drugs and other addictive behaviours’. Not only was the headline interesting, but I believe the thesis also supports some principles around what it takes to live a meaningful life and have an impact on the world around us.
A new study has revealed that playing the Russian computer game smash for as little as three minutes at a time can weaken cravings for drugs, food and even activities such as sex and sleeping by approximately one fifth.
Here is are the relevant direct quotes from the article:
Psychologists from Plymouth University and Queensland University of Technology, Australia, have revealed that playing Tetris interfered with desires not only for food, but also for drugs, including cigarettes, alcohol and coffee, and other activities
Professor Jackie Andrade, from the School of Psychology and the Cognition Institute at Plymouth University said,
“This is the first demonstration that cognitive interference can be used outside the lab to reduce cravings for substances and activities other than eating.
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; it is hard to imagine something vividly and play Tetris at the same time.”
“As a support tool, Tetris could help people manage their cravings in their daily lives and over extended time periods,” added Professor Andrade.
Cravings and Substance Abuse
Anyone who has had or has known someone who has had an addiction problem knows what the word cravings means in a negative context. Merriam-Webster defines craving as – an intense, urgent and/or abnormal desire or longing.
In the context of substance abuse, someone who is trying to stay sober will have strong cravings daily – usual many times a day – for the particular substance or activity they are addicted to. All of these cravings can add to to create a relapse – when a person finally gives into the cravings.
The tetris effect is basically distracting your mind from your negative cravings by preoccupying your mind with something more neutral and innocuous – playing a video game. In the study, as soon as the craving started, the test subject would play a few minutes of tetris. This would distract their mind from the craving, and after a few minutes, the test subject was able to continue with their normal activities without the craving. Pretty cool.
Cravings WITHOUT Substance Abuse
Of course, those with substance abuse problems or sexually related addictions are not the only ones with negative cravings. We ALL experience negative cravings; and, believe it or not, those cravings are still caused by the process of addiction.
As I have become more introspective and have been pursuing accountability and blind spot identification the last few years, I have confronted with what I would term the common addiction that afflicts everyone – young/old, successful/broke, man/woman, religious/atheist/agnostic. This common addiction is negative thinking.
Neurochemistry and the Brain
How can negative thinking be a physical addiction you may ask? Well, the answer is related to neurochemistry. When we encounter a situation or a person, the real-life interaction that occurs can be called the real story. As you reflect on this real story – either in the moment or later on – your brain wants to fill in the gaps of the real story. The brain does this by developing an imagined story from the real story. The brain fills in the gaps as it were – things like motive, explanations for non-verbal cues, perceived attitudes, etc.
This imagined story can become quite elaborate. The more one dwells on the imagined story, the more detailed – and ingrained – it becomes. Why does the brain do this? Simple. When you develop the story further by filling in the gaps and create an imagined story, your brain gets flooded with dopamine. Dopamine is the same reward mechanism that gets triggered when you abuse substance or engage in other, negative addictive behavior like the various forms of sexual addictions. Now, the dopamine flood from imagined story creation is not nearly as intense as it would be if you did a hit of crack cocaine – but, the mechanism is exactly the same.
So, our brains, actually become addicted to making up stories in our heads – imagined stories – to augment and flesh out the details missing in the real story. This will create cravings to develop an imagined story – any time a real story is physically played out in our lives.
Guess what else about the brain plays against us here? Our brains do not know the difference between something imagined and something real. That’s why we can cry during a sad movie, get scared or jump during a scary movie, and get fired up during an adventure movie. Our brain reacts as if the story we are watching is real life – even when it is not. The playing of the imagined story like a movie in our heads – also causes a flood of dopamine to be released in our brains – deepening the addiction.
The Unhappy Happy Place
Here’s where it gets really messed up. Because of the dopamine released when we make up imagined stories and because more gets released when we play the imagined story like a movie in our heads, negative thinking can become a neurochemical happy place for us. As days turn into months which turn into years, we can become so hooked on negative thinking – about others and ourselves – that we are deep in this addictive rut without even realizing it.
More bad news? Yup. You CANNOT get rid of an addiction. I repeat. No one can remove an addiction from their lives. You have to REPLACE the addiction with another behavior that produces the SAME REWARD in your brain.
Believing the Best
So, what can we use to replace our negative thinking about ourselves and others? Well, you may have guessed it – positive thinking! Specifically though, it is thinking that requires us to believe the best – about ourselves, others, and the situations we find ourselves in.
We can actually create positive imagined stories in our minds that fill in the gaps with positive assumptions.
Example Real Story:
This person I know just walked right past me, looked and me, and didn’t smile or say hello.
Example Negative Imagined Story:
They must hate me. They must be mad about such-and-such that happened last week. They must have been talking about me with so-and-so who doesn’t like me.
Example Positive Imagined Story:
They must have had something else really important on their minds. They must not have seen me. They might have something serious going on in their lives that they are pre-occupied with. I’ll check in with them later and see how they are doing
That’s a relatively simple example, but it illustrates the process. With intentionality, deliberate will, discipline and accountability – similar to what a substance abuser might experience in a recovery meeting like AA – each of us can overcome these negative thought addictions in our brains. We need to admit we have a problem, we need to create a plan of action, and ask others to hold us accountable. Just as if we had a substance abuse or physical addiction.
Hello. I’m Bob. I can think very negatively about myself and others.
I’m not trying to be mocking when I say that. Negative thought patterns about ourselves, others in our lives, and the situations we find ourselves in, can greatly reduce or even destroy the masterpiece that God desires for our daily lives.
God’s Tetris Game
Where does the concept of believing the best come from? Straight from the mind of God. How cool is it that God gives us exactly what we need to create an addiction to positive thinking? God commands us to look to the needs of others as more important than our own. To love others as much as we love ourselves. To do unto others as we would like them to do unto us. Give to the poor, care for the orphans and widows, and bring justice to the oppressed.Those are not just sweet platitudes or higher principles of life – they are daily disciplines and practices. They are systems for developing healthy addictions – in other words – good habits.
God essentially gives us a much more effective, much more meaningful distraction from our negative thinking than Tetris can ever be. God gives us the ability to live our lives for others. To be kind, compassionate, generous and loving. That is the Tetris Effect in God’s economy. The good news (or bad news for video game junkies) is that God offers us the perfect solution for negative, addictive thinking and behavior – a renewed mind – that places servant-leadership and sacrificial love as the top pursuit for our daily living.
This has been the story of my journey in the last couple years. I am slowly breaking the bondage of 40+ years of negative thinking patterns using God’s Tetris Effect for unleashing the masterpiece he created me to be. I commit myself daily to being distracted by loving others, leading sacrificially and keeping the needs of the poor, orphans and the oppressed in my mind, heart and actions. Some days I do better at living out that commitment than others. It will be a lifelong journey of imperfection for me – but I can feel my negative habits of thought being replaced by positive ones – slowly, one day at a time. I never want to go back to the old patterns!