Visualization in Smoking Cessation

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The National Institutes on Drug Abuse is a publically funded organization that funds and reports on addiction research. The latest issue of NIDA Notes (their newsletter) is reporting on research they helped sponsor into just how cognitive treatment works to help people stop smoking.

At issue is trying to discover just why it is that visualization affects the way we think about an addiction and how it helps reduce cravings. The technique is common in cognitive behavioral therapy, but there is little research into just what is happening in the brain when we “change our mind” as far as desiring an addictive substance.

A pair of studies used brain imaging techniques to measure how the brain responded in conditions of enhanced and reduced cravings in smokers. Smoking is still a hot topic in addiction research because it still causes the most long term harm of all addictions.

The essential experiment was:

In preparation for the study, the participants practiced turning their thoughts to rewarding effects of cigarettes or high-fat food consumption when given the instruction “NOW” and to negative effects when given the instruction “LATER.” In the study itself, the researchers gave each participant 100 such instructions, in random order, each followed by a 6-second exposure to a screen image of either cigarettes or food. Then, after a 3-second delay with the screen blank, the participant reported how much he or she desired to smoke or eat, on a scale of 1 (not at all) to 5 (very much).

Even under these simple conditions, experimenters were able to watch as the “craving centers” in the brain lessened activity. This validates the results obtained with negative visualization in cognitive-behavioral therapy. It also gives credibility to advertising messages that are anti-smoking if they include graphic images or stories that realistically portray the health effects of smoking. Clever ads (this is your brain on drugs) shouldn’t be as effective as more intense and visual types (faces of meth).

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