Smoking: Evidence

March 3, 2008

With the caveat that scientists could publish just about anything and I would have no way of refuting it, today I read a report of a study that found that there are differences in the behavior of smokers and non-smokers. The experiment took the form of a multi-round investment game:

When subjects play the investment game, they invest money in a stock market, and then are shown how much the investment made and the maximum amount they could have made. The researchers found that for nonsmokers, the most important influence on the next investment was “what could have happened” on the last round. However, even though smokers’ brains recognized what could have happened in the previous round (as shown in the fMRI results), their next actions were based primarily on the actual rewards they received.

“The brain’s might-have-been signal in smokers is identical to nonsmokers, but the smokers don’t act on it,” said Dr. Terry Lohrenz of BCM’s Computational Psychiatry Unit and one of the report’s authors. “We think that in smokers, the parts of the brain that react to these fictive signals may be impaired. There’s an imbalance between acting on immediate rewards and acting on fictive outcomes, and the smokers are led almost completely by the immediate actual rewards.”

The authors’ findings fit with the fact that addicts ā€“ including smokers ā€“ continue drug use and pursue addictive behaviors even though they know that it may have devastating effects and that they are forgoing good health.

While I do think that that fMRIs are a bunch of hooey, it’s an interesting theory, and it’s supported by an actual experiment comparing (in a lab setting) the behavior of smokers and non-smokers.

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