Curbing a smoking habit is a tough task, but a new tool could be in the arsenal: meditation. A new study found that a meditation training regiment reduced smoking among participants, even those who did not intend to kick the habit.
“Individuals at risk for substance abuse, including smoking, typically have deficits in self-control,” says Yi-Yuan Tang of the Texas Tech University. “It’s an important question whether impaired self-control could be ameliorated and strengthened with intervention, and thus potentially change smoking behavior.”
Past research has shown that mindfulness meditation can combat a number of conditions that result from a deficit in self-control, such as substance abuse and attention problems. To further test this link with smoking, Tang and colleagues designed an experiment to be controlled and randomized, features lacking in many previous studies.
Tang’s research team recruited smokers and nonsmokers interested in general stress reduction and randomly assigned them to either participate in meditation training or a relaxation training control. The meditation training, known as integrative body-mind training (IBMT), involves body relaxation, mental imagery, and mindfulness training accompanied by music and the help of a coach. The control group, meanwhile, underwent a relaxation training that involved relaxing sets of muscles in a sequential pattern, also accompanied by music and a coach.
The results, published online this month in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, were striking: Among smokers, 5 hours of meditation trainings over the course of 2 weeks reduced smoking by 60 percent, while no reduction occurred in the relaxation control group. “With our randomized controlled design, we found that even brief IBMT can improve self-control and reduce smoking,” Tang says.
Surprisingly, Tang explains, whether participants intended to quit smoking did not significantly affect the reduction in smoking. “Intention is often thought to be important to achieve a goal and change behavior, so most interventions emphasize the importance of intention to quit help smokers to achieve the goal,” he says. The study found that participants who reported an intent to quit smoking did not outperform those without, suggesting, the researchers say, that the meditation training may lead to unconscious changes in behavior.
Indeed, past work has noted that the very act of intending to reduce use of a substance may actually lead to increase in substance abuse. The idea is that the intent to quit activates brain networks related to craving. The IBMT does not force participants to resist craving or quit smoking but instead focuses on improving self-control capacity.
Further supporting the idea that the training creates unconscious processes, the researchers found a mismatch between how much the participants reported a reduction in their smoking and a more objective measurement of their smoking reduction using carbon monoxide analysis. One participant commented that he was not even aware that he had reduced his smoking so much while going about his daily activities.
The researchers also conducted brain scans of participants before and after the training regiments, finding that at resting state, participants in the meditation group had increased activity in the anterior cingulate and prefrontal cortex brain areas. These regions are part of the brain network related to self-control capacity.
Tang emphasizes that people who want to try meditation training at home to help them quit smoking need a teacher or coach. He is planning to open IBMT workshops in the United States and Europe but first wants to test the intervention on larger samples. He also hopes to test the training technique for reducing other drug use.
-Lisa M.P. Munoz
The paper, “Brief meditation training induces smoking reduction,” Yi-Yuan Tang, Rongxiang Tang, and Michael I. Posner, was published online in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences on Aug. 5, 2013.
Media contact: Lisa M.P. Munoz, CNS Public Information Officer,