So, perhaps you’re craving chocolate (perhaps even those innocent little rose petal truffles in the photo). It’s just a fact of life for a lot of people, but sometimes, occasionally, maybe it’s just not convenient. Maybe you’re scuba diving or fighting a tiger or climbing a tower taller than the Empire State Building on your way to work. Or maybe you went to the cupboard to get some chocolate because you were longing, nay, aching for it, but it turns out you forgot you ate it all and a big vortex of horror and despair opens up in your heart. Luckily, using your imagination to conjure up vivid images and smells unrelated to chocolate will decrease that craving1.
Chocolate-loving participants in this study were asked to abstain from eating chocolate and were then asked to imagine themselves eating their favourite chocolate (oh the cruelty that exists in psychology experiments). This induced chocolate cravings, unsurprisingly, which participants rated on a scale of 0 to 100 (0 being no urge/desire to eat and 100 being extremely strong urge/desire to eat).
Each participant then performed a mental imagery task, in one of three modalities: visual, auditory or olfactory. So they had to vividly imagine sights, sounds or smells, as prompted by written instructions (e.g. “imagine the appearance of a rainbow”, “imagine the sound of a door squeaking”, “imagine the smell of pencil shavings”). They did this for 18 different instructions in their given sensory modality. They then rated how strong their craving for chocolate was, again from 0 to 100.
Turns out that there’s a pretty big decrease in average craving ratings in the group of people that imagined sights (ratings dropped from about 60/100 to 33/100) and the group that imagined smells (a drop from about 59/100 to 38/100), but not much of a decrease in the group that imagined sounds (a drop from about 54/100 to 45/100). Inquiring minds want to know why!
The suggested reason for the craving decrease is that your brain only has so much memory it can dedicate to things that are currently going on, so if your brain is currently thinking about how much you want to eat chocolate but you then force it to actively and vividly imagine something else, this part of your memory (known as working memory) runs out of resources and the craving gets shuffled aside and relegated to the background. Sights and smells are pretty important parts of the chocolate-eating experience whereas sound generally isn’t, potentially explaining why the craving reduction wasn’t seen after participant imagined sounds. Put that in your pipe and smoke it, inconvenient cravings!
And this doesn’t just work for chocolate cravings, of course. The chocolate craving experiment was the second experiment in the study; the first experiment looked at the imagination task’s ability to decrease food cravings for whatever your favourite food or meal might be, since it also worked for people who might have been craving Atlantic salmon, bacon and eggs or roast lamb.
Other studies by the same research group have found a few more interesting little relationships between food craving and working memory. For example, habitual chocolate cravers perform more poorly on working memory tasks (such as working out short little mathematical equations in their heads) because they allocate too much working memory capacity to their craving when they’ve been deprived of chocolate2, while chocolate cravers can reduce their cravings even just by passively watching a flickering pattern designed to tax the visual aspect of working memory3.
So if you’re craving chocolate (or some other food) and unfortunate circumstances have conspired to deny you that which you so desperately want, use your imagination to fill that working memory up and squeeze the cravings into the shadows. It might work, even if just in the very short term, and maybe, just maybe… you’ll be able to cope until you can get to the shop. Hang in there.
(Recipe for rose petal truffles after the cut. I made these for Dr Tash PhD because she brought me back so many nice chocolate things from her U.S. jaunt.)
Rose petal truffles
200g dark chocolate
70g (1/4 cup) thickened cream
3 tbs rose petal jam
2 tsp rosewater
crystallised rose petals (optional)
Cut the chocolate into pieces. Melt only 100g of it with the cream either in the microwave or in a bain marie. Stir until smooth. Add jam and rosewater and stir in. Put in the fridge for about 2 hours until firm.
Scoop about a generous tablespoon of the chocolate mixture out with a spoon and quickly roll into a ball using your hands (it’ll get messy, but it’s just a sacrifice you have to be willing to make). Put it on a plate covered with baking paper. Continue making the chocolate mixutre into balls and placing them on the baking paper so they just aren’t touching. Put in the fridge for 30 minutes.
Melt the remaining 100g of chocolate in a bowl in the microwave or using a bain marie. Stir until smooth. Using two forks, drop one of the refrigerated chocolate truffles into the melted chocolate and roll it around until coated, then drain off as much excess melted chocolate as possible by moving the truffle back and forth between the two forks. Put it on another plate covered in baking paper, then repeat for the rest of the truffles. Make sure they don’t touch each other once they have been coated in melted chocolate.
At this point, you can decorate them if you so wish. I happened to have crystallised rose petals, so I stuck one on top of each truffle.
Place in the fridge for half an hour just to make sure the outer shell of chocolate is set, then they’re ready to go.
1. Kemps et al. (2007). Modality-specific imagery reduces cravings for food: An application of the elaborated intrusion theory of de desire to food craving. Journal of Experimental Psychology: Applied, 13, 95-104.
2. Kemps et al. (2008). Food cravings consume limited cognitive resources. Journal of Experimental Psychology: Applied, 14, 247-54.
3. Kemps et al. (2004). Chocolate cravings are susceptible to visuo-spatial interference. Eating Behaviors, 6, 101-107.