Movies and The Smoking Brain

Jan 24 2011 Published by under Addiction, Behavioral Neuro, Neuroscience

Sci saw this paper come out last week, it made it big in the mainstream media, and a couple of blogs covered it. Whenever something like this comes up in the news, I just have to get the paper myself and make sure whether it's all really true. And now I have it, so here we go.

Wagner, et al. "Spontaneous Action Representation in Smokers when Watching Movie Characters Smoke". The Journal of Neuroscience, 2010.


We'll start with a recollection. Sci spent a lot of her young life (ok ok, also her adult life. And now) as a dancer. Various types, but this memory comes from ballet.

I recall one rehearsal before a performance. Another piece was on stage, the rest of the ballet was watching in the wings and in the audience. There was a whole row of us in the seats, watching. I felt my leg start to jerk. I look down, and realize my leg muscles are moving, because I'm viewing dance and my body wants to DANCE. Then I looked down the row. Up and down the row of dancers, legs were jerking, spontaneous muscle movements from dancers watching dance. To this day, when I see dancing, my legs will jerk, because my body wants to dance, too. Just THINKING about it, my leg started jerking. RIGHT NOW. Yeesh.

This is the physical representation of the action observation network (AON), areas in the brain which are activated in response to meaningful actions. When you see a goal directed action that has meaning to you, these brain regions will activate, and you will begin to plan the action as though you were to do it yourself. If the stimulation is strong enough, you may actually follow through with some of the action, as with the dancers and our jerking legs. In fact, the AON has been shown in dancers themselves.

But what about in smokers? And why would it matter? As we all know, smoking is highly addictive, and highly bad for you. Many studies have gone into what makes it so addictive, and what makes it so easy to get hooked. One of the things that could be involved in the addictive properties of smoking (other than the good old reward related brain areas) is the AON. Craving and relapse could be as simple as just watching someone light a cigarette, as their motions prompt you to do the same.

Now, a lot of studies have already looked at smokers in MRI machines. What was different about this one was the difference between a movie and a photo. Usually, when scientists go to study drugs of abuse and craving in humans, they use photos of drug paraphernalia to study craving, and what brain areas are associated with it. But while photos can help study craving, they can't really help study whether drug use is associated with things like motion (or the AON), because a photo isn't IN motion. So to look at the involvement of the AON, you have to get some photos in motion.

To test this, the authors of this paper grabbed smokers and non-smokers, plunked them in an MRI, and showed them a MOVIE. Sadly, they didn't show them Mad Men (which is pretty well covered in a smoky haze), they showed them the movie Matchstick Men. They then checked to see what areas of the brain lit up in the smoking scenes vs the non-smoking scenes (which served as a control).

What you can see on the top left are the main areas that showed a higher activation in smokers vs non-smokers. The graphs on the bottom show the two most important areas, the intraparietal sulcus (IPS) and the left lateral profrontal cortex (LPFC). Both of these areas showed a large response in smokers during scenes depicting smoking, and both of these areas are part of the AON.

So it appears that, like dancers watching dancing, a smoker watching smoking "goes through the motions" in their brain, planning the motion of lighting up.

All this is very cool, and it's nice to see it "in motion" as it were. The authors also noticed that there was activity in drug cue-related regions like the nucleus accumbens and orbitofrontal cortex. But what I found most interesting was a tiny little paragraph at the end of the results section, where they discussed craving.

The dorsal anterior cingulate cortex mentioned above is an area of the brain that is associated with the motor cortex (as opposed to the ventral anterior cingulate cortex which is associated more with reward related structures). And it was ALSO an area of the brain where activity level during the smoking scenes correlated with cigarette craving after the scan. This is not particularly surprising, and has been noted before in other studies, but this is the first time I have particularly seen it associated with motion and the actions associated with lighting up a smoke. And it means that more of craving than we realize may be linked to the association with certain motor cues that become ingrained, like positioning a cigarette for a light.

The implications for this study are pretty obvious. If you're trying to quit smoking, it's best to stay away from movies or TV shows depicting smoking, which might induce craving and cause you to relapse. But it's harder than you might think. It's not an easy thought to keep in mind (does this movie involve smoking?), and many episodes of smoking in TV shows are very ubiquitous and hard to avoid. And it shows us just how delicate some of the cues can be to make us fall into the trap of relapse.

Wagner DD, Dal Cin S, Sargent JD, Kelley WM, & Heatherton TF (2011). Spontaneous action representation in smokers when watching movie characters smoke. The Journal of neuroscience : the official journal of the Society for Neuroscience, 31 (3), 894-8 PMID: 21248113

7 responses so far

  • wurmfood says:

    I was a pack-a-day smoker for 13 years. I quit almost a year ago. To this day I find it difficult to watch a movie or TV show where someone is smoking. I already have a hard time not smoking, but watching someone smoke makes it all the worse.

    What's interesting is I think most smokers could have told you this is true. In addition, smoking by many is seen as a social behavior. I smoked more when I was out with other people who smoked because seeing someone else light up made me want to as well. I'd be willing to bet that some of the reaction to people smoking in movies/on TV is buried in a similar, social reaction as well as an empathetic reaction. I find this particularly true in places where smoking is generally banned.

    For example, hitting a bar in San Francisco frequently meant standing out on the sidewalk with random strangers and smoking. If a friend who smoked was with me, we'd go smoke together and usually go through a couple cigarettes. I'd see someone else go to smoke so I wanted to go get one as well. Once outside, we usually smoke at a different pace, so whomever finished first would probably light up a second (being a smoker and talking with someone who is smoking, it's really hard not to light one as well). Usually it was the cold or desire for more beer that drove us inside and would make us break the chain. Bars with an outdoor section in warm weather usually produced chain smoking for hours on end.

    Giving up smoking was about the hardest thing I've ever done. I don't regret quitting, but man do I miss it.

    • scicurious says:

      Yes, I have to say I found this paper to be kind of a "no duh" moment, though it does have implications for treatment. But they hadn't actually SHOWN it in smokers before, which is what made it novel.

      Good for you for quitting! That definitely something to be proud of.

  • Arlenna says:

    I, too, was a ballet dancer for most of my childhood/teenage years, and I get the body twitches whenever I watch dancing, too! The physical and emotional nostalgia I get from watching the Nutcracker is so strong, I almost can't go see it because it gives me such longing. Even though in most ways, I do not miss that life, and if I were to try dancing again now I'd probably injure myself beyond repair because of the arthritic aftereffects on my older body.

  • Kinda reminds me of leaving the theater with my date after watching Lost in Translation. We were not the type to go to a bar on a weeknight, but damn if we didn't go and sit for a few hours afterward.

  • Bashir says:

    The AON and other motor related things are very very interesting. I wish I knew more about it.

  • Craig says:

    I had that muscle memory thingie happening when I first learnt to touch-type. It was a quick & intense course that had us practicing about 6hrs/day, and halfway through the course, I found that my fingers had started to automatically twitch as if they were typing out my internal monologue.

    It got to the point where I'd be lying in bed thinking "I wish this twitching would stop so I could get to sleep", and then my fingers would twitch "I wish this twitching..." etc.

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