Your imagination vs chocolate cravings

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.

  12 comments for “Your imagination vs chocolate cravings

  1. September 22, 2010 at 10:00 pm

    Must. Not. Act. Defensive… :D :D

    Actually, I ahve to replace everywhere you say *chocolate* with *blue cheese*, because chocolate isn’t really a craving for me. It’s more a fact of life.

    Wait, that probably means its gone beyond the craving you talk of here, to the bad kind of craving like for cigarettes.


    Food for thought indeed.

    • Jess
      September 23, 2010 at 8:49 am

      After reading some of the studies in this field, I realise that I don’t qualify as a habitual chocolate craver, alas. Like if I was asked to abstain from eating it for 24 hours, it seriously wouldn’t be sitting there in my working memory, taunting me and poking me and preventing me from getting stuff done properly. The researchers said at one point that the habitual chocolate cravers reported eating an amount of chocolate that was twice as much as what the non-cravers reported, but I don’t know what sort of amounts we’re talking about. A block vs half a block? 2 squares vs 1 square? Tell me!

  2. Natasha
    September 22, 2010 at 11:43 pm

    Luckily for Dr Tash, PhD, she has a pretty good working memory representation of how amazing these tasted, and that can comfort her in times of chocolate-need (I’m not sure why I have taken to speaking of myself in the third person, but it felt right….).

    • Jess
      September 23, 2010 at 8:50 am

      Or just do a 3-back task and you’ll be fine, worm-eating-its-tail strategy or not.

  3. September 23, 2010 at 10:30 am

    I’m not a habitual chocolate craver, more of a sugar craver I think. I love the kick I get from sugar and strangely I don’t feel a good meal has finished until I get that sweet kick. Luckily I’ve discovered some herbal teas that are relatively sweet (without the sugar) that help satisfy that craving.

    The truffles look fantastic Jess, as always, and as always you have instigated my cravings. I’ll have to start imagining them away. I have to ask where did you get the crystallised rose petals and violets?

    • Jess
      September 23, 2010 at 10:01 pm

      I feel the same about finishing a good meal — it needs something sweet. However, if I forget to have something sweet after dinner for a number of consecutive days, then I won’t feel like something sweet at all. Although this usually only applies to home, never restaurants. Restaurant dessert menus I will not ignore.

      The violets and rose petals are from Black Pearl Epicure in the Valley. They have so much unusual stuff that I buy without any plans about what to do with it, and then I invent a recipe around whatever I bought. Very good for creativity. Plus they have all the molecular gastronomy chemicals for my spherifications, etc.

  4. September 24, 2010 at 6:02 am

    Hi Jess!!

    AHK! i don’t know what kind of a brasilian would ever give you a pão de queijo recipe with corn flour in it! blasphemy. traditional pdq is made only of tapioca flour (not tapioca starch) flour is made from the whole root. you have to find it and try again! bakeries around here have started putting wheat flour in them (ugh) and after getting sick a few times i decided to only make them myself now. here is my own recipe-

    250g tapioca flour, 1/2 cup milk, 1/2 cup water, 14 oil, 1tsp salt, 1 egg, about 20g grated parmesan. mix together the water milk and oil and bring to boil. then take off heat and stir everything else in. roll into balls. i usually add things like basil, pepper, sausage, green onions and what not to jazz it up.

    btw these truffles look freaking fabulous; i want real chocolate so bad!! never had rose petal jam…worked at a place that sold rose petal ice cream. yum.

    • Jess
      September 24, 2010 at 8:21 am

      I found the recipe on a site for learning Portuguese for use in Brazil. :( They had it in Portuguese and English and maybe the English was mistranslated (it says “1 pacote de polvilho”?). Recipe ingredients can be difficult to figure out when even in the same language they mean different things in different countries. The recipe’s main dry ingredient was tapioca starch — no flour of any sort! The first time I made them it was like eating horrible rubbery oily bread. So I started doing half tapioca starch, half wheat flour (I’m so sorry for getting such an awesome thing so wrong!). I was at a party ages ago and the Brasilian lady who’s in my lab but who works in a different building (so I basically never see her) brought pão de queijo along and they were amaaaazing. I didn’t get her recipe off her, though, which was probably my first mistake! That’s why I ended up finding one on the internet.

      I’ll have to go on a search for tapioca flour (I think I know where to find some, although it’s really uncommon) and give the pão de queijo another go and get it right! Thanks for the recipe. :)

  5. September 24, 2010 at 2:20 pm

    I crave chocolate approximately once a day, usually at seriously inopportune times. Like at the gym. Or in the middle of a two hour long lecture. I’m glad I know of this coping mechanism now!

    These little truffle balls are adorable!

    • Jess
      September 26, 2010 at 8:17 am

      Science saves the day again!

  6. September 26, 2010 at 4:07 am

    I’m not a big chocolate person. When I was little, I didn’t eat chocolate at all, but now I am willing to eat a little.

    • Jess
      September 26, 2010 at 8:16 am

      Yeah there are plenty of people out there who aren’t fans of chocolate, even if they’re the minority. There used to be one in the lab I used to work in, so when I baked things for lab meetings, I had to shift away from my usual library of chocolate recipes and aim to use more fruits, nuts, that sort of thing. It’s nice to take a break from chocolate sometimes.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *