Fantasizing about food and sex can reduce pain. (And you always thought those fantasies were a waste of time…) People in emotional or physical distress often turn to “comfort foods” – new research shows that just thinking about these foods can have a significant effect.

“Imagery tactics are the most potent cognitive behavior interventions for pain,” said Dr. Hamid Hekmat, professor of psychology at the University of Wisconsin at Stevens Point and lead author of the study. “We found that food fantasies such as imagining eating your favorite ice cream, chocolate cake or meal had a strong pain-attenuating effect. It enhanced mood, reduced anxiety, and helped coping with ice water pain.”

As reported by Radha Chitale in In Pain? Your Favorite Food May Get You Through It, Hekmat had subjects put their hand in ice water to create a painful (but, one hopes, not actually dangerous) situation. He found that subjects instructed to fantasize about a favorite meal withstood the pain far better than subjects asked to think about a neutral subject or those who were given no instructions.

You can probably guess the most common food fantasy chosen by the participants… Chocolate was the fantasy of choice for about a third of the subjects.

Hekmat and his colleagues based the current study of food fantasies on similar studies they did in the past showing that sexual fantasies can reduce anxiety and improve a person’s tolerance for pain…

“Pleasurable response derived from excitement may facilitate the involvement of internal opioid mechanisms to counteract pain,” Hekmat said. “Excitement absorbs attention and pleasant imagery can induce hypnotic-like states that detracts from pain, improves positive mood and reinforces personal belief in the manageability of pain.”

Can Ad-Driven Thoughts Create Positive Brand Association?

While these subjects had to come up with their own fantasies, it seems likely to me that externally-driven thoughts, such as seeing a luscious chocolate dessert in a commercial, could have a similar effect.

Indeed, if being told by a researcher to think about food or sex can trigger the brain’s opioid mechanism as Hekmat suggests, sufficiently engaging advertisements should be at least as effective in doing the same thing. Even viewers not in pain might get a small positive boost from the ads, perhaps leading to a favorable brand association. This is speculation, of course. On the other hand, the introduction of images is a potent force. In my post last year about addictive foods, I mentioned research which showed, “When cravers viewed pictures of chocolate this activated regions of the brain known to be involved in habit-forming behaviours and drug addiction.” That certainly underscores Hekmat’s suggestion that merely thinking about these favorite foods may activate the brain’s internal opioid mechanisms.

In another post, Sensory Appeal: Sight Matters, I described research that showed “combining the sight and taste of chocolate produced a stronger reaction in both cravers and non-cravers, than either separately.” This, too, suggests that adding images to an individual’s fantasy might well produce higher level of activation.

These data points are encouraging, but not conclusive. Right now, I don’t think the facts aren’t there to recommend this approach with a high degree of confidence. This would be a fascinating topic for some additional research.

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