The Neuroscience of Cravings
Research explains why people have intense urges for specific foods — and reveals ways to train our brains to resist them
Serving as an experimental subject in the lab of Peter Hall means eating chocolate or potato chips — as much or as little of either as you want. And there’s no catch.
Well, maybe just a tiny one.
While you’re scarfing down the goodies, you have to wear a device on your head that scrambles some of the signals in your brain with a blast of magnetic energy.
The “transcranial magnetic stimulation” (TMS) headgear is completely safe, and its effects are temporary. When the headgear is turned on, the device alters electrical signals in a region of the brain responsible for self-control, blotting out half of the wearer’s urges to say, eat two pounds of chocolate.
It’s all in the service of advancing science. The science of food cravings, that is. Hall, a PhD psychology researcher at the University of Waterloo in Ontario, Canada, is trying to pin down what it is, exactly, that happens in the brain that leaves people vulnerable to cravings. His device is just one tool being used by scientists to pick apart the complex tangle of mental, physical, and environmental factors that can gang up to overwhelm people with the urge to devour a particular food item, and to do it ASAP.
The findings of cravings scientists are often discouraging. For one thing, research has confirmed that cravings tend to form around foods that undermine healthy diets. For another, scientists are recognizing just how fully Big Food has mastered the marketing of its products to trigger cravings, while simultaneously making them so accessible that we have little chance to muster resistance. “Sometimes when I consider all the ways we’re pushed by our cravings, I think to myself, ‘What hope do we have to resist them?’” says Charles Spence, an Oxford University PhD researcher who studies how our perceptions influence our eating.
But there’s some good news in the research, too. Namely, it’s uncovering a number of effective, if often counterintuitive, strategies for combating the pull of a cravings-primed brain. “When it comes to what we crave, the environment and culture…