Think about a munching on a bag of your favourite chips. Let that image sit in your brain for a little while. How does it feel? Are you craving chips right now? Sometimes, a single mention of a word is all it takes to trigger a craving, and unfortunately, cravings often entice you to do things that aren’t good for you. What if you could change that?In this post, we’ll take a look at how you can rewire your brain and use those cravings to your advantage.
We deal with cravings on a daily basis. Whether you’re craving something as simple as a bag of potato chips or as abstract as a shopping experience, the basic science behind your cravings is the same. Before we can look into how you can use that science to better yourself, we have to understand how cravings work on a physical and psychological level.
To help, I talked with two experts in the field of desire and self control: Assistant Professor Wilhelm Hofmann from the University of Chicago Booth School of Business, and Dr Kelly McGonigal, Stanford University psychologist and author of The Willpower Instinct: How Self-Control Works, Why it Matters, and What You Can Do to Get More of It. Let’s start by taking a look at the science behind cravings.
What Are Cravings and How Do They Work?
According to Dr McGonigal, a craving is an experience where we not only want something, but we need it. Mr Hofmann explains their origins:
[Cravings] originate from reward-processing activity in the brain (we’ll go into detail on reward-processing in the next section). Then they become conscious, that is, integrated with a feeling of “longing” and elaborated on with conscious thoughts (including motivated reasoning on why it might be a good idea to enact the craving).
Let’s return to that bag of potato chips. We picture the reward of eating them, then feel a longing for them, then eventually, eat the whole bag. Cravings work in reverse order from acting them out. Even cravings we typically associate with a physical feeling, like cigarettes or drugs, are thought to originate in the brain before the body. Let’s take a closer look at the role of physical and the psychological aspects in our cravings. Photo by Aviva West.
Physical cravings aren’t as abundant as we probably think. Essentially, we crave something the body has gotten used to, whether that means cigarettes, food, alcohol or anything else. A study published in The Journal of Abnormal Psychology suggests that smoking, long assumed a physical addiction, is more related to a craving formed from the habit and originating in the brain. Physical addictions do exist, but unless it’s related to drugs, most of us don’t have a close relation to the feeling of a real physical addiction.
As for the evolutionary reasoning? Dr McGonigal suggests cravings were initially about survival, which meant just two things: surviving (eating and drinking) and reproduction (survival of genes). The body and brain learned to crave what it needed to survive, but over time, those same survival traits leaked into the rest of our lives and we developed cravings to consume things we don’t inherently need.
Since most of us deal with psychological cravings daily, let’s take a look at how they work, where they come from, and how your brain tricks you into needing things.
Psychological cravings include the feeling you get when you suddenly realise you want a hamburger or an entire bag of salt and vinegar chips. Two systems in our brains create and tell us how to react to cravings:
- First, the reward system identifies a target and causes the brain to release dopamine. This makes the brain believe it will get happiness or pleasure from what you’re craving. This desire for immediate gratification blocks your prefrontal cortex from weighing your long-term goals against the craving. You know the classic image of the angel and the devil on the shoulder? That’s essentially your brain when you are deciding if you’re going to fold to the pressure of a craving. Your craving is the devil, only thinking about short-term rewards, and the angel is your prefrontal cortex, pleading for you to consider the long-term ramifications.
- Next, your body releases stress hormones that make you feel discomfort or pain. The stress essentially tricks the body into believing the only way to feel better is to succumb to the craving.
According to Dr McGonigal, the brain can learn to attach the promise of reward to almost anything. If your brain believes that something is going to make you happy, your brain can initiate the craving response. One study from the University of Maryland connects compulsive technology usage to the same parts of your brain as cravings, another from the journal NeuroImage suggests drug cravings are no different from food, shopping or other cravings. Mr Hoffmann agrees, but points out the science is still a little fuzzy:
Many researchers claim that anything that is highly rewarding for somebody can elicit strong cravings, because the reward centre has “learned” to anticipate the pleasure it brings about. So, anticipated reward is, in a sense, the “common currency” of the brain by which various activities are evaluated.
Knowing how cravings work isn’t enough to really understand how it affects you personally. Let’s see how you can experiment on yourself a little and dissect your own craving response.
Test Your Own Cravings
We all think we know what it really feels like to crave something, but we likely never look closely at the variety of emotions we feel from the moment the idea is planted in our head to the moment we overindulge on an entire bag of chips. Dr McGonigal shares this exercise that she runs her students through to teach them mindfulness:
Take a food you have a false promise of reward with (potato chips, a box of cookies, whatever). Eat as much as you can and notice how you go from being happy to feeling stuffed or sick afterwards. Pay attention to every emotion you go through. Notice how the taste of the food changes as you move through the bag. The goal is to show you that even after you eat an entire bag, you’re not satisfied. But when you’re stuffed and feeling gross, your brain is still telling you to crave the food you just ate. The goal of the exercise is to rewire your memory and tie the craving with the consequence, not the reward.
So, we’ve got an idea of how cravings work in the brain and in our bodies. We’ve run through the exercise above and have a good idea of how they work specifically in our own bodies, but what can we do with this information? Let’s take a look at the ways you can rewire your brain to not just overcome cravings, but also use them to your advantage. Photo by Kelly.
Hack Your Brain to Use Cravings to Your Advantage
Cravings are not a good thing. In fact, the triggering of the stress response means we usually feel uncomfortable when a craving comes on. Because of that, we don’t want to overuse a lot of these methods, but you can create temporary triggers that can help you form better habits in the long run. First, let’s take a look at how you can overcome those negative cravings.
Overcome Your Negative Cravings
We know that cravings tap into the part of your brain that wants immediate gratification and when it does, the brain ignores your long-term goals. However, you can train you brain to motivate itself toward long-term goals naturally. Here’s how to do it.
- Create Competing Motivations: Dr McGonigal suggests you train your brain to recognise the difference between motivations and cravings. To do this, create competing motivations so when your brain craves something, you can properly weigh it against what you really want. This means writing down your goals, keeping them available to you, and constantly reminding yourself of what positive goals you want to achieve. This allows your brain to automatically shift to remember your long-term goals and ignore the cravings that have a negative effect on them.
- Be mindful of your actions: Did you do the potato chip exercise above? You can use that same experience to train your brain to stop and think about your negative cravings. In an experiment published in Society of Psychologists in Addictive Behaviors, smokers slowly and methodically opened a pack of cigarettes and had to think about each action. Over time, their urges were reduced because they had to think through each of their actions. If you did the potato chip experiment above, put your mind back in that place where you’re still feeling the urge to eat even after you’re full. Remember the fact the chips didn’t taste so good after a few bites and how awful you felt afterwards.
Overcoming your negative cravings is great, but how about manipulating those urges into achieving your positive goals? Let’s look at some of the tricks you can play on your mind to do just that. Photo by Todd Baker.
Use Triggers to Initiate Positive Cravings
A craving is often created from a trigger. Since something as simple as reading the words “potato chips” can make you crave them, the same triggers should exist for what you want to crave. It’s not a long-term solution to dealing with harmful cravings, but you can use those cravings to accomplish positive goals you have trouble starting. Here are a couple of ideas for how you can use them.
- Change your environment: Dr Mcgonigal describes this as “dopamanising your willpower challenges”. Take something that triggers a craving and then pair it with something you want to get done. For instance, if you have to get paperwork done, combine it with a task you enjoy, like eating a muffin at a coffee shop. If you hate exercise, but enjoy shopping, start speed walking in the mall. The flush of dopamine and stress hormones still come out, but you can associate them with the task you want to accomplish. This eventually wears off and stops working, but it gives you enough time to form a new and healthy habit.
- Alter your environment: Placing things you truly want around the house is a way to create a competing motivation for your cravings. The idea is that when you’re reminded of you positive goals, like exercise or eating better, you have quick access to what you need, not what you want. Make subtle changes to your home or work environment. Keep your running shoes by the door or store fruit in the same place you store Pop-Tarts. This trains your brain to not only balance your motivations and cravings properly, but also creates triggers for the positive change you want to make. You can’t crave what you don’t want, but you can train your brain into wanting what’s healthy for you.
Fixing your environment to use triggers to your advantage is just one option. You can also use your instinctive reward system to rewire the brain to want to chase a new craving. Photo by Bill S.
Alter Your Reward System
Your instinctive reward system is designed to make you pursue or chase a goal. If you’re trying to start a new habit you want something less abstract than “being healthy” to chase after. Using those cravings to force yourself into accomplishing goals is a great way to provide the temporary reward system needed to establish a long running habit.
We’ve all heard that dangling a carrot across large projects is a great way to reward yourself, but using whatever you crave, say, that bag of potato chips, as a reward for accomplishing a project can motivate you to finish a project quickly. It’s a bit simplistic, but it works to help establish habits and get things done.
The same can be said for more abstract motivations. For instance, let’s say you want to put more money in your savings account, but you always waste a good portion of your check on lottery tickets. Use those lottery tickets as the reward. For example, every time you deposit $200 into your savings, you can spend $20 on lottery tickets. This captures the consumption you crave (the lottery tickets) and turns it into a useful reward (saving money).
Listen for the Rewards in What You Really Want
Mr Hofmann recommends taking the idea of using the mindful tactics (the potato chip exercise you did above) to create new, positive cravings. Here’s what he suggests:
If one wants to be successful with regard to a certain goal, my suggestion would be to try to “listen” to the rewarding aspects of the activity one wants to cultivate (e.g. the feeling of accomplishment after a good workout or trying to appreciate the taste of veggies and other healthy food) and thus to work towards “re-programming” the mind to develop reward signals toward these activities, perhaps even turning these into “good” cravings.
The idea is that you might be able to gradually rewire your brain into craving activities, foods or behaviours that are healthy. Think about the “runner’s high” when you push yourself, or the burst of energy you have after a healthy meal. There’s no guarantee, of course, but if mindfulness can work to help repress urges by identifying the negatives, the same is possible in reverse. You will still have the dopamine and stress responses, but at least the brain will push you toward a positive goal instead of a negative one. Photo by Daniel Huggard.
Cravings are like an evolutionary loophole. Our brains are broken by cravings and they can have a negative effect on our health. By recognising how they work inside our bodies, we can get a better idea of how to stave them off, and how to hack our mind to take better control of itself in the long run. Cravings will always be there, but if you can at least crave what you truly desire, and not what you immediately want, you’ll be better for it.
Have some tricks for dealing with your own cravings or creating your own reward system? Share them in the comments.
Kelly McGonigal, PhD is a psychologist at Stanford University and the author of the book The Willpower Instinct: How Self-Control Works, Why It Matters, and What You Can Do to Get More of It. Wilhelm Hofmann is an Assistant Professor at the University of Chicago Booth School of Business. Both offered their expertise for this story, and we thank them.