Meditating just a modest amount may help curb cigarette smoking, even in smokers who don’t intend to quit, according to a study published Monday in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.
After a few hours of meditation, smokers puffed significantly less and had increased activity in brain regions associated with self-control — without even knowing that their behavior had changed.
Researchers from several institutions recruited 60 college students, including 27 smokers. Half the subjects learned a form of meditation called integrative body-mind training, or IBMT, practicing for five hours over a two-week period. IBMT involves relaxing the whole body and remaining “crisply focused on the present moment,” said University of Oregon psychologist Michael Posner, a study coauthor.
The remaining participants followed the same schedule, but instead practiced relaxation therapy, which involves periodically concentrating on different parts of the body.
Cigarette smoke contains high levels of carbon monoxide, so scientists measured how much carbon monoxide subjects exhaled to determine how much they smoked before and after the two-week training session. Smokers in the meditation group smoked 60% less at the end of the training. In contrast, the smoking habits of the relaxation therapy group showed little change.
Study participants also answered a questionnaire that gauged their craving levels. Their responses revealed a significant decrease in craving in the meditation group, but not in the relaxation therapy group.
To understand the brain mechanisms underlying these differences, Posner and his colleagues used a functional magnetic resonance imaging machine to examine activity in the subjects’ anterior cingulate and prefrontal cortices, which play a major role in impulse control. They saw that smokers had poor activity in these brain regions, indicating impaired self-control. The activity of these regions increased significantly in smokers who learned meditation, but didn’t change in subjects who followed the relaxation regimen.
The meditation group also showed a sharper decrease in the activity of the posterior cingulate cortex and cerebellum, brain regions associated with problem solving -- which may also kick into gear when smokers resist reaching for a cigarette, Posner said. Although these brain regions are useful for situations requiring intense focus, they may sabotage efforts to quit smoking.
“It’s counterproductive to concentrate on wanting to quit,” Posner said. “That leads you to think about smoking, which activates craving pathways.”
That could explain why many volunteers assigned to the meditation regimen realized they were smoking less only after they saw reductions in the levels of carbon monoxide they exhaled. When filling out questionnaires on their smoking habits, many patients initially reported no change in the number of cigarettes they smoked per day.
“I was not aware of my smoking reduction while filling out the self-report questionnaires,” one participant said. “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 a half pack per day recently. It started around after one week [of] training naturally, but I didn’t know why.”
“Our results to date suggest it may be possible to reduce smoking and craving, even in those who have no intention to quit smoking,” the researchers wrote, adding that “IBMT does not force participants to resist craving or quit smoking; instead it focuses on improving self-control capacity to handle craving and smoking behavior."
In follow-ups after two and four weeks, five of the responding smokers who smoked significantly less after meditating reported that they were maintaining the improvement. However, further follow-up studies are needed to determine whether smokers need additional meditation training to control their habit, Posner said.
IBMT is one of several forms of meditation already used to treat addiction. Although the new study supports its effectiveness in curbing smoking, more studies are needed to determine whether other forms of meditation are just as effective, Posner said. Whether IBMT can be used to treat other forms of substance abuse also remains to be seen.
Posner also cautioned that the participant pool was small and not representative of the general population. Although IBMT reduced smoking in the college students studied, it may not work well for everyone. The research team is working on pursuing a larger-scale study that will “include a larger slice of the population,” he said.