Memory: Willpower Workout

Memory games might help addicts drop the habit.

By Nancy Ryerson, published on May 3, 2011 - last reviewed on June 9, 2016

Image of a broken cigarette

Could brain teasers help substance abusers beat addiction? Researchers at Virginia Tech observed that addicts often exhibit "delay discounting," the tendency to devalue far-off rewards in favor of instantly rewarding stimuli—like drugs.

Borrowing an approach used to rehab stroke and traumatic brain injury victims, they put substance abusers through cognitive boot camp, building up the part of the brain involved in executive function. After a month of training, participants showed a 50 percent decrease in their delay discounting rate.

The participants, patients at a substance abuse facility, memorized strings of numbers, words, and letters in games that targeted working memory—the system that first processes new info. There's substantial overlap between the functions of working memory and delay discounting, says researcher Warren Bickel. By building up underlying cognitive circuits (mostly in the prefontal cortex), such exercises may help the addicted resist instant payoffs, set long-term goals, and look ahead to a healthier tomorrow. Future research will measure whether buffing up working memory actually helps them kick the habit. —Nancy Ryerson

Game Time Decisions

Could memory-building methods like the ones in this study help you quell your cravings for cigarettes or Coke (Coca-Cola, that is)? Bickel thinks so: A stronger working memory helps anyone look ahead and resist instant gratification, he says. PT found a few fun iPhone games that tap working memory.


In this chicly designed game, players watch a series of flashing colors and repeat the pattern. As the pattern gets longer, the pace quickens.

Touch Attack!

This popular, kid-friendly package tests your memory and reflexes with three fast-paced pattern-matching games.

Memory Matrix

Quick! Identify which squares in a blank grid were shaded a moment before. After a few rounds, check your "brain profile" comparing your skills to other players'.