This post was originally published on March 9, 2015.
The struggle to quit smoking is real. And so, it turns out, is the concept of placebo effect. Check out the recent NewsMedical story about a Virginia Tech Carilion Research Institute study on actual nicotine addiction versus the cigarette smoker’s correlated belief system about nicotine. In the study, the entire focus group was given nicotine-laced cigarettes but select individuals were told the cigarettes were nicotine-free. The result? Those people actually demonstrated a different behavior in their brain simply because they believed they were not consuming/ingesting/smoking (take your pick) their beloved nicotine.
A Scientific Breakdown for the Non-Scientist
A smoking habit develops mostly because of nicotine’s effects, which involve essentially molding the human brain to associate nicotine with reward. After smoking, the participants in this study were part of a rewards-based learning game. While they played, scientists studied their brains. Okay, well technically they studied “computational models of learning signals generated by the brain during these kinds of tasks.” Through this, scientists hoped to see neural signals associated with the belief that the focus group members didn’t get any nicotine in the system, not just the signals of actual nicotine intake. Does this make sense? It took me a second but science has admittedly never been my strength. Basically, all the folks in this study got nicotine in the system but the ones who believed they did showed a greater amount of action in their reward-learning pathways. The ones who were told they didn’t get a nicotine fix, even though they technically did, did not show those same signals.
The researchers are hoping these findings can assist in working to reverse addiction cycles. As lead study author Read Montague, director of the Computational Psychiatry Unit at Virginia Tech Carilion Research Institute, told NewsMedical, “Just as drugs micromanage the belief state, maybe we can micromanage beliefs to better effect behavior change in addiction.” In short, the way drugs make people feel different helps to develop a belief system around that drug, despite the fact that the body’s actual physiological reaction to the drug can change over time. This makes sense; addicts often cite having to quit because the drug or drink “stopped working for them.” It makes sense that it takes so long to get to the point of finally accepting that because an addict’s belief system around a substance’s effect revolved so strongly around the euphoric state it originally instigated.
This Could Be a Smoking Game Changer
These findings are pretty astounding in the context of cigarette smoking. For years, scientists have observed the profound impact of placebo effect on sick people or chronic pain sufferers actually showing improvement, or even complaining of severely negative consequences, simply because they thought they were getting legitimate treatment. But to think this same type of effect could be applied to those who feel imprisoned by full-blown nicotine addiction? It’s hopeful progress in the smoke-free America cause. This concept certainly makes a good argument for maintaining positive thoughts and trying to manifest your desires through a belief system built around acting as if they already exist.
I only wish they’d done a Q&A with the focus group after they discovered they’d been lied to about the nicotine. I know I’d feel like I’d been royally tricked and beg to do it again. “Just one more shot, scientist-person, please,” I can picture myself saying. But even more importantly (and be forewarned, I might or might not have a few The Secret-driven vision boards in my closet), this study certainly proves that our thoughts and beliefs can be powerful tools.