Smoke screen: research sheds light on how likely you are to quit the cigs

Despite the apparent serenity with which the lady-on-the-advert manages to kick her fag habit, it can take more than the latest nicotine patch, lozenge or suppository to stop smoking.  And looking past the unnerving way such adverts actually manage to market your own will power back to you; self-discipline is a major component of the sinew joining that one last cig with actually quitting.

But just how dedicated are you to giving up? Perhaps more than you think. Emily Falk, director of University of Michigan’s Communication Neuroscience Laboratory, headed up a study to see if people who had increased neural activity when watching anti-smoking ads changed their smoking behaviour in the following months.

Twenty-eight heavy smokers trying to quit underwent fMRI brain scans as they watched a series of ads that drummed in the benefits of a smoke-free lifestyle. The part of the brain being studied was the prefrontal cortex, an area which is associated with figuring out conflicting thoughts as well as social control.

Prior to the scans, participants filled out a questionnaire which examined their smoking history, nicotine dependence and intentions about quitting. They also had their exhaled carbon monoxide (CO) levels measured.

A month later, researchers got in touch with the subjects to check their progress, and take a second CO reading to judge their fag intake. Smokers with increased neural activity during the study were found to be smoking less, dispite their own self-assessment. “We found that neural activity can predict behaviour change, above and beyond people’s own assessment of how likely they are to succeed” said Falk.

The implications of the research reach further than just cutting out the fags. Experiments, such as Falk’s, echo the studies of Dylan-Haynes, where through the study of a subject’s frontal lobe, scientists were able to predict choices before the subjects consciously made them.

“It is possible that the brain activity we are observing predicts behaviour change that is not predicted by people’s self-reports, because it is tapping into something that people aren’t consciously aware of when they initially see the ads,” said Falk.

Reason then, for frustrated quitters to take a celebratory puff on their nicotine inhalers. As it turns out, watching that woman calmly stub out her last cigarette and never go back could actually be doing you a service-you just don’t realise it.

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