Life is so unfair. Trying to give up something you’re addicted to just makes you crave that thing even more, whether it’s cigarettes, alcohol or sugar. You’re caught in a Catch-22: you want to quit, but the more you try, the harder it gets to resist temptation. Perhaps the key is not to try so damn hard, but instead improve your brain’s capacity for self-control.
It might just work…
Researchers at Texas Tech and the universities of Texas and Oregon recruited students for their smoking study, but rather than advertising for people who wanted to give up cigarettes, they appealed for volunteers who wanted to reduce their stress levels and improve cognitive performance. They were randomly assigned to two groups. Some got five hours of mindfulness meditation training over the course of two weeks, and the others got training in a standard relaxation therapy.
The form of meditation they used is called integrated body-mind training (IBMT) and involves body relaxation, mental imagery and mindfulness training with music. The relaxation therapy involved sequentially relaxing different muscles and focusing on the sensations of relaxation.
Remarkably, among the smokers in the meditation group there was a 60% reduction in smoking. There was no reduction for smokers in the control group. The researchers didn’t rely on their subjects’ own reports of how much they were smoking – they recorded the amount of carbon monoxide in their breath, which is a standard, reliable measure of cigarette consumption.
The scientists also scanned their subjects’ brains using fMRI (functional magnetic resonance imaging) before and after the two-week courses. Before, the smokers had reduced activity compared with the non-smokers in their anterior cingulate cortex and prefrontal cortex: parts of the brain associated with self-control. Previous research has suggested that these areas tend to be less active in smokers.
After meditation training, however, there was significantly increased activity in these brain areas among the smokers, but no significant increase in the same areas among smokers who underwent relaxation training.
They also asked the volunteers about their level of craving for cigarettes, before and after the courses. Craving was reduced after meditation training, but not after relaxation training.
The authors conclude that mindfulness meditation may help people to cope with the symptoms of addiction, such as impaired self-awareness, loss of control, withdrawal and craving, and with the accompanying negative emotions and stress.
Remember, the smokers were not actually trying to quit over the course of the study. One of them, who underwent meditation training, told the researchers: “I was not aware of my smoking reduction while filling out the self-report questionnaires. I usually consumed one pack with 20 cigarettes each day before training. But after I thought carefully and checked my pocket, actually I only needed half pack per day recently. It started around after 1 wk [of] training naturally, but I didn’t know why.”
Previous research has suggested that meditation may help with addiction to a variety of substances, including alcohol, cigarettes, cocaine, amphetamines, marijuana and opiates, but these studies have been criticised for methodological flaws, such as lack of randomisation and control groups. This latest study overcomes such criticisms.
There are a few limitations to the study. The numbers are on the low side: in the meditation group there were 15 smokers and 18 non-smokers; in the relaxation group there were 12 smokers and 15 non-smokers. One smoker in the relaxation group later dropped out. So only 26 smokers altogether. The researchers also point out that there was no significant correlation between the brain changes and the reduction in craving or smoking. If there had been, this would have strengthened their conclusions.
As a non-smoker, I look forward to a study that investigates whether meditation reduces excessive craving for sweet things like fizzy drinks, chocolate or cupcakes laden with sugary icing. I’m not being entirely facetious here. It’s true that globally more than 5 million deaths a year are caused by smoking, but around 2.8 million are caused by overweight and obesity. Craving kills, whether it’s for cigarettes or sugar. A little more self-control would surely be a good thing.
Yi-Yuan Tang, Rongxiang Tang, & Michael I. Posner (2013). Brief meditation training induces smoking reduction PNAS DOI: 10.1073/pnas.1311887110