For many years now, it has been known that smoking cigarettes is bad for the human body. It causes cancer, emphysema, causes premature aging in the skin, and many other health problems. So the question remains, why do people still smoke? Why don’t they just quit? It is hard for some people to understand why another person would continue to harm their body once that person knows the bad side effects. Studying the brain and how smoking affects the structures and functions of the brain can give insight into why an individual would engage in this detrimental activity.
Other factors, such as intrinsic and extrinsic motivations also play a role in the beginning and continuation of smoking. Examining all of these factors can lead to a better understanding as to why an individual begins, and continues, to smoke cigarettes. Smoking cigarettes is considered by some to be one of the hardest addictions to overcome because of the effect that smoking has on the brain. Nicotine, the addictive part of cigarettes, can be found in the ventral tegmental area, or VTA. The cell bodies in the VTA also release neurotransmitters to the nucleus accumbens, or NAc.
The VTA-NAc is also known as the ‘reward pathway’ (Noonan, 2011). So basically, when someone smokes, the nicotine attaches itself to the dopamine transmitters and increases the amount of dopamine that is released in the NAc, giving the smoker a pleasurable feeling. The NAc also plays a large part in the reinforcement of pleasurable feelings, whether it involves food, activity or something else. Since smoking releases the dopamine in this area of the brain, it is hard to stop smoking because the more instinctual part of your brain is telling you not to.
However, this is not the only part of the brain that is affected pleasurably by smoking cigarettes. The dopamine that was released, or was stimulated to be released, by the nicotine in cigarettes also affects the frontal cortex, hippocampus, and amygdala (Noonan, 2011). The frontal cortex is the part of the brain that is in charge of planning, strategy etc. When the dopamine reaches the frontal cortex, concentration is increased, and when a person quits smoking, or does not have a cigarette for a while, there is less dopamine in this area of the brain (Wilson, 2011).
The side effect of this is weakened concentration, and when that same person then smokes a cigarette, the dopamine is once again released and the person can concentrate better. This reinforces the behavior through association of smoking the cigarette and being better able to concentrate. Through the VTA, dopamine is also released into the hippocampus, which is the part of the brain that is in charge of learning and memory (Noonan, 2011). Although it is a small amount of dopamine that is released, it is this part of the brain that can trigger the relapse of smokers that are trying to quit by creating strong cravings.
The amygdala is also affected by the dopamine released through smoking. The amygdala is responsible for emotions, so when there is a decrease in dopamine in this part of the brain, it causes irritability. This part of the brain is further affected by cigarette smoking because opioids also have nicotine receptors on them, and these opioids go to the amygdala. Since opioids are basically painkillers for the body, when there are less opioids going to this part of the brain because an individual stops smoking, the amygdala sends out craving signals (Noonan, 2011).
All of these parts of the brain are affected every time a person smokes, so when the person attempts to stop smoking, the effect is drastic. There are so many parts of the brain telling the smoker to not quit, and produces a physical reaction to quitting, that it is difficult for a person not to listen to what their own brain is telling them to do. Considering that the parts of the brain that are in charge of concentration, planning, free will, learning, memory, emotions, and reinforcement of pleasurable behavior are all affects by smoking, it is easy to see how difficult it would be to quit.
Knowing that it is extremely difficult to stop smoking does not explain why an individual would start smoking in the first place. In this day and age, it is hard to find someone in the more developed parts of the world that does not know the risks that are associated with smoking cigarettes. Even with this education, there are many people who start smoking anyway. There are multiple explanations for this behavior. An individual might be motivated extrinsically by their environment.
Smoking cigarettes has been deemed ‘cool’ in the past and despite more modern efforts to change that mentality, the reputation has stuck. There have been surveys conducted that show that many people who started smoking as teens did so to ‘look cool’ to their friends or to look more mature to older kids and adults. This mentality can be traced back to movies where the ‘cool’ guy lights up a cigarette, or in old westerns where all the movie stars smoked. This behavior especially affects younger individuals (Bergen, 1999).
If a teenager sees a person that they admire or look up to doing something, they are likely to copy that behavior in an effort to be more like that person. Another extrinsic motivator would be acceptance, or wanting to ‘fit in’ with a group. If everyone in a group smokes and an outsider wants to be part of that group, one of the easiest ways to fit in with the group is to start smoking. Now that in many parts of the U. S. smoking is banned inside many restaurants and building, smoking has become even more of a social behavior.
Groups of people gather and smoke together outside of these buildings and socialize. A non-smoker is unlikely to join in the group and thus may feel left out of the social circle. In order to ‘fit in’ or become part of the group, the non-smoker may begin to smoke, even if only on the occasions that they want to socialize with the group. The extrinsic award would be acceptance into the group. Using that same example, the motivation could be intrinsic as well; the feelings of acceptance that the individual feels could be the intrinsic reward.
Heredity also plays a role in smoking, a family with addictive tendencies or personalities would be more likely to have offspring that share the same traits (Lerman, 1999). Since cigarettes are legal, it is easier for a person to get them, and there are no legal ramifications for the purchase as long as they are of the correct age. Therefore, even if a person that has an addictive personality goes out of their way to avoid drugs and other illegal activities, smoking cigarettes could be a vice that they fall into easily, especially if their family smokes.
However, environment still plays a huge role. If an individual is never exposed to or motivated in some way, whether intrinsically or extrinsically, to try cigarettes, it would be impossible for them to be addicted. Studies have also shown that lower-income, lesser-educated people are more likely to smoke (Bergen, 1999). Heredity plays more of a role in the side effects of smoking. A family history of lung cancer or other diseases caused by smoking will make it more likely for an individual from that family to experience those same diseases.
It can also affect their ability to quit, however, just because members of their family didn’t quit does not mean that they cannot, it just might make it more difficult. As with any other human behavior, smoking cigarettes comes from a combination of intrinsic and extrinsic motivations, as well as environment and heredity. The effort to quit is extremely difficult for this behavior because of the effect smoking has on the brain. Although the effort to quit comes from the brain and may be an instinct for survival, that same brain is sending signals to not quit.
It is an internal battle of the brain, the same parts of the brain that are used for motivating and planning a strategy to stop smoking are the exact ones that are sending opposite signals, telling the person to smoke a cigarette. Overcoming these obstacles can be extremely difficult, but with the help of science and learning about the processes of motivations, advances are bound to be made in aiding people to quit smoking. References Noonan, M. (2011, march 30). Parts of the brain that control motivation to quit smoking. Retrieved from http://www. livestrong.
com/article/195790-parts-of-the-brain-that-control-motivation-to-quit-smoking/ Wilson, S. (2011). Quitting-unmotivated and quitting-motivated cigarette smokers exhibit different patterns of cue-elicited brain activation when anticipating an opportunity to smoke. Retrieved from http://wilsonlab. psych. psu. edu/pdfs/Wilson_QuitMotivation. pdf Lerman, C. (1999, January). Evidence suggesting the role of specific genetic factors in cigarette smoking. Retrieved from http://www. ncbi. nlm. nih. gov/pubmed/9925041 Bergen, A. (1999). Cigarette smoking. Retrieved from http://jnci. oxfordjournals. org/content/91/16/1365. full. pdf html