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Neuroscientists study how mindfulness meditation helps people overcome temptation to smoke

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In “How Mindfulness Makes the Brain Immune to Temptation: Paying attention to cravings takes away their power” (Psychology Today, November 27, 2011), Kelly McGonigal reports,

A new study, just published online this week, sheds some light on what’s happening in the brain when we apply mindfulness to tempation. This study recruited 47 smokers who wanted to quit, and asked them to abstain from smoking for 12 hours before the experiment. The researchers taught the participants basic principles of mindful attention — like in Bowen’s study, it was a very quick and simple “intervention,” no formal meditation training required.

The researchers then showed the smokers smoking-related images designed to induce cravings. For some images, the smokers were asked to view them passively, without any special mindfulness to their experience; for other images, they were asked to view them mindfully. They also asked smokers to report any cravings they were experiencing. All the while, the researchers were watching what was happening in each smoker’s, tracking brain activity using a functional magnetic resonance imagine machine.

First, the self-report: mindfulness reduced cravings. It’s counter-intuitive, because research has conclusively shown that images trigger strong cravings in smokers. But mindfulness seems to provide some kind of inoculation to the images.

The reduced cravings correlated with reduced activity in craving-related areas of the brain (e.g. the anterior cingulate cortex). Interestingly, mindfulness didn’t just reduce activity; it functionally disconnected the different regions of the brain that make up the “craving network.”

It’s not just a new take on the traditional idea of  distracting oneself – mindfulness meditation works more reliably because it is a form of exercise.

Study: Westbrook C, Creswell JD, Tabibnia G, Julson E, Kober H, Tindle HA (2011). Mindful attention reduces neural and self-reported cue-induced craving in smokers. Soc Cogn Affect Neurosci.

See also: Neuroscience observations about how mindfulness works

Hat tip: Stephanie West Allen at Brains on Purpose


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