Keep it in mind


A week later, the procedure was repeated with the same group of smokers. They were asked not to smoke for 12 hours, and when they arrived they were given the same questionnaire. Then they were given a cigarette to smoke before doing the next questionnaire, so that there was a record of how their withdrawal symptoms went away, how good they felt after smoking, how great that cigarette was and how much it satisfied their craving.

Except that the second time, the cigarette didn’t have any nicotine in it. It was made of tobacco and it felt and tasted and smelled just like a real cigarette, but the nicotine – which we all know is the addicting drug in cigarettes – had been chemically removed.

The punch line is that the questionnaires were virtually identical. The normal cigarettes with nicotine and cigarettes with no nicotine were as good as each other in eliminating the withdrawal symptoms. Just to make sure, a blood sample was taken and it confirmed that when the nicotine-free cigarettes had been smoked, no nicotine had entered the blood stream. Even though these smokers had received no nicotine at all in their blood and in their brain, their craving was satisfied and physical feelings of withdrawal subsided.

The researchers behind this study point out that this effect is “subject to rapid extinction”, which is their way of saying that you can’t keep it going for very long. Fairly soon the smokers would realise there was something wrong with the cigarettes and the effect would disappear. But the fact that it happens at all, even for a brief period of time, gives us a very clear indication of what the mind can do. We can begin to see the difference made by attitude in the process of addiction. The smokers expected to feel better after they smoked the cigarette, and so they did!

These effects are not confined to smokers.

One researcher took the active ingredients – the ‘drugs’ – from chocolate and fed them to chocoholic volunteers in the form of a pill. They weren’t in the least bit interested in the pill and it did nothing to satisfy their craving for the real thing. The researchers concluded that craving, liking and eating chocolate is “motivated principally by desire for the sensory properties of chocolate.”

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  1. Janet

    Thanks Gillian – your article is excellent, as always – well researched and interestingly written.

  2. Maggi

    Just finished reading the book “Addiction: A Disorder of Choice”, written about data on illegal drug use that shows that it’s the mental side of things that works to make nearly all illegal drug users quit by age 30 and in a way that doesn’t support the disease model of addiction. Of course, possibly going to jail and having the drug sources be a lot harder to find than the nearest supermarket or gas station helps. But the main influence was seeing that the substance use wasn’t nearly as fun as it used to be and it was getting in the way of other pursuits even more important than getting that high. Cravings did NOT go away with such insights. They just weren’t perceived as being strong enough to be the deciding factor anymore. Author Gene M. Heyman also went on to explain how it usually takes some intellectual effort to combat instincts that have been usurped by modern substances or activities that humans didn’t have excessive access to before. This is likely because it can also take awhile for the benefits of the new regime to compete with the in-the-moment advantages of the old. I suspect with such easy access to high-reward food, the timeline for reducing the attachment to food might be even longer.

    BTW, one of the factors that seemed to affect whether users could kick the drug on their own, and it definitely applied in only a minority of the cases, was comorbid psychiatric disorders. The ability to think clearly is a huge advantage. I hope to think that enough of the masses have the right ability to do it, once they really get the options. What are they? Stay stuck, get more stuck, get less stuck, get unstuck, all with their own difficulties and consequences. I think that with food, getting less stuck is the most viable option for most. That’s one of the reasons I love the title of your book. Thin might not be possible but eating less very likely is!

    • Thank you so much for this, Maggi. I’ve ordered the book and look forward to reading. As the author is a Lecturer in Psychology at Harvard Medical School I’m hoping for some strong research and evidence behind this idea – what a great start to the year for me.

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