The Unexpected Health Benefits of Tetris

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

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