Can your imagination help you stop eating?
December 9th, 2010
02:01 PM ET

Can your imagination help you stop eating?

A powerful craving for chocolate candy takes hold. Imagine popping that chocolate into your mouth. Then crunch through its candy shell, chew the chocolate center as it melts in your mouth and swallow. Then go through this imaginary motion 29 more times.

The repetitive imagery of eating could help people consume less, according to a study released Thursday in the journal Science.

“If we imagine performing it, if we’re chewing and swallowing and imagining consumption, it decreases our desire for the food we imagine eating,” said Carey Morewedge, lead author of the study.

It may seem counter intuitive. Shouldn’t thinking about eating a delicious, melting chocolate candy make you crave it more?

In the experiment at Carnegie Mellon University, participants were divided into three groups. The first group imagined inserting 33 quarters into a laundry machine, performing 33 repetitive actions. The second group imagined inserting 30 quarters into a laundry machine and then imagined eating three M&M'S. The third group imagined inserting three quarters into a laundry machine and then imagined eating 30 M&M'S.

Then, all three groups ate freely from a bowl filled with M&M'S after they were told they would take a taste test. The third group that imagined eating 30 M&M'S ate significantly fewer candy than the other two groups. The researchers conducted five different variations of this experiment using cheese and M&M'S.

Researchers believe the decreased desire to eat food could be from habituation – a decreased response to stimulus because of repeated exposure. For example, a tenth bite of chocolate is less delicious than the very first bite, because your taste buds have gotten used to or habituated to its taste.

“We demonstrated that habituation to a food item can occur even when its consumption is merely imagined,” wrote the authors.

After all, the participants who merely imagined eating 30 blocks of cheese or M&M'S didn’t want to eat much of it.

“It’s not affecting how much people enjoy taste of the food,” said Morewedge. “It seems to affect our desire to attain more of it.”

The imagination experiments appeared to be food specific – meaning those who imagined eating 30 pieces of cheese weren’t deterred from helping themselves to M&M'S, and those who imagined eating 30 M&M'S weren’t turned away by cheese.

“Habituation has been shown to be food specific,” Morewedge said.

These findings that the imagination could play a powerful role in affecting appetite, could have bigger implications for the battle against the bulge.

“We hope this kind of research gives us insight into behavioral intervention to regulate food intake,” Morewedge said. “We know that feeling of fullness doesn’t come immediately when eating. It comes later on. Habituation occurs more quickly.”

With better research on habituation, it could help people regulate food intake.

Morewedge said they’re testing different ways that “imagination induction” could help people eat more healthy food and find unhealthy foods like potato chips less appealing.

“It might be useful induction for cigarettes- whether repetitive imagery decreases cravings, and the neurological and psychological process,” he said.

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Get a behind-the-scenes look at the latest stories from CNN Chief Medical Correspondent, Dr. Sanjay Gupta, Senior Medical Correspondent Elizabeth Cohen and the CNN Medical Unit producers. They'll share news and views on health and medical trends - info that will help you take better care of yourself and the people you love.