Computer Game Trains the Brain to Resist Temptation
Trying to resist the temptation of a sweet treat or a slice of pizza oozing cheese? Researchers are now testing a new smartphone app and new computer game that may help you to learn inhibitory control, helping you to avoid impulsively giving in to cravings.
Drexel University researchers are launching a study to see if a computer game and app they’ve developed can help people to control unhealthy eating habits and finally shed some excess pounds. The mobile app is supposed to detect patterns in a person’s eating behaviors. When users appear to be shifting their behavior, the app is tailored to get them immediately back on track. Researchers in Drexel’s Laboratory for Innovations in Health-Related Behavior Change are now seeking participants for both studies.
It’s clear from recent studies that sweet foods or fatty foods can trigger the same kind of mood boosting “good feeling” similar to certain addictive drugs. Attempts to stop eating these foods and to control calories, in order to lose weight, are often de-railed by cravings and temptations. If you’ve committed to a diet and trying to avoid eating breakfast pastries, you may be sorely tempted into eating one if it’s front-and-center when you arrive to work. Your first reaction is typically “I want it,” and then a delayed secondary reaction is to try and put the kibosh on the impulse. That secondary reaction has to be practiced (again and again) so your inhibitory control becomes familiar, quicker and effective.
In order to test that theory, the team of researcher assigned habitual snack eaters to one of four short training exercises to help strengthen their inhibitory control and mindful-decision making. The training techniques helped to reinforce and bolster both. Now the researchers want to test inhibitory control to see if it really can help people to reduce impulsive snacking.
The new training game being tested is called the DietDash and it first requires users to reveal their secret sweet cravings, the sweet foods they typically want and snack on. Subjects are then assigned one of four versions of the game, customized to their diet. So if their sweet delights are donuts and cookies, those foods appear in the game. The game then offers different images and instructs the player to press certain keys. As the player’s inhibitory control increases, the game speed increases for additional challenge. Players are instructed to play the game for eight minutes daily, for six weeks.
Subjects who sign up to participate in this study will be evaluated after two months to see if playing the game will now help them to resist cravings and impulse snacking in real life. Other studies have shown a temporary impact on eating behaviors. This would be the first study to see how two months of intense training impacts long term behaviors. Once the study is complete, the game can also be converted into a phone app. The NIH (National Institute of Health) is partially funding this study.
A second study that is looking to enroll subjects is a weight loss app called DietAlert. It’s being funded by Weight Watchers and The Obesity Society. The app is intended to be used in conjunction with the Weight Watchers app. It collects information about the subject’s eating habits and then creates an algorithm to predict when they are most likely to lapse from their diet program. The key to this app is that it is programmed to pick up when the person may be tempted by cravings. For example, if you have been really committed on your diet plan to eat breakfast daily, the app may pick up a skipped breakfast and send a warning alert signaling that skipping that meal may raise the risk of a bigger diet lapse. The DietAlert app not only tracks eating habits but uses the information to give personalized advice. It’s that personalized aspect and the algorithm alerts capability that help distinguish this app from so many other already available diet apps.