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Psycasm is the exploration of the world psychological. Every day phenomenon explained and manipulated to one's own advantage. Written by a slightly overambitious undergrad, Psycasm aims at exploring a whole range of social and cognitive processes in order to best understand how our minds, and those mechanisms that drive them, work.

My posts are presented as opinion and commentary and do not represent the views of LabSpaces Productions, LLC, my employer, or my educational institution.

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Thursday, October 14, 2010

[Wherein our hero lights up, and discusses why smoking is good. Do you smell the controversy?]



Smoking is bad. Right?


It's a filthy habit, it smells, it's addictive.

It kills.

Smoking's bad, right?

Yes... but...

I like smoking. It feels good. It makes my ideas flow quicker and it takes the edge off when I'm overloaded. It goes great with a few beers, and is a way to bond with others. Having said that I smoke less than 2 cigarettes a month, at a stab. I'm not addicted, but I'd sure as hell smoke more if I it wasn't going to kill me in an horrific manner. I'd smoke more if it didn't cripple my cardio ability. I'd smoke more if it wasn't so damn anti-social and my girlfriend didn't object. But the kicker, above all else, is that smoking kills.

Let me say that once more, before you read the body of my post.


And yet we continue to smoke. I contine to smoke. For all I know, You continue to smoke. It's easy to say 'Oh, it's addictive', but those who start smoking aren't already addicted; and those who aren't addicted sometime indulge. The truth is smoking makes us feel good. It gives us a kick, it does something to us we like, something we find value in.

A meta-review by Heishman, Kleykamp, & Singleton (2010) has revealed some findings that I find fascinating. Nicotine in Non-smokers increases reaction time to a significant degree, but only has only marginal significance in smokers. Addtionally, Nicotine increases orienting reaction time among smokers and non-smokers alike. Nicotine produces a significant improvement in accuracy of short-term recall tasks for smokers, but not non-smokers. Nicotine produces a significant effect on reaction time in working memory - it seems, in a sense, we think faster; and Nicotine produces a small, but significant effect, on fine motor abilities.

According to Perkins and colleagues, Nicotine might reduce (thermal) pain senstivity.  Results were modest, but appear significant, but more research is required to understand how and why such an effect might exist.

Finally, in a population of smokers, smoking increases generalized Alpha waves, according to Domina et al. (2009). Alpha waves are the wave associated with wakeful relaxation with closed eyes. It seems that, neurologically, smoking is relaxing.

It's a tricky subject. I'm not here to make an argument for, or against smoking, I merely wanted to understand why I, and others, continued to taunt death and indulge in something so clearly unhealthy. Like I said earlier, I enjoy smoking - but I abstain for many reasons. I couldn't find anything on emotions, or affect, regarding nicotine which was a bit disappointing. If you do have a paper to that effect, I'd greatly appreciate it.

In the mean time know that smokers smoke for reasons other than addictions. I smoke on occasion to clear the mind and facilitate thinking. Some evidence alluded to such support, but I would not go so far to say that smoking quantifiably improves such cognitions, but it hints at it. Nor would I go so far as to suggest one ought to smoke to have such thoughts, to relax, or to improve reaction time in working memory - that's a bit crazy - but know that nicotine is a drug chosen by humanity for particular reasons, and such reasons may be outlined above.  

For interest's sake I've looked at the cognitive benefits of drinking, too


Perkins, K., Grobe, J., Stiller, R., Scierka, A., Goettler, J., Reynolds, W., & Jennings, J. (1994). Effects of nicotine on thermal pain detection in humans. Experimental and Clinical Psychopharmacology, 2 (1), 95-106 DOI: 10.1037//1064-1297.2.1.95

Domino EF, Ni L, Thompson M, Zhang H, Shikata H, Fukai H, Sakaki T, & Ohya I (2009). Tobacco smoking produces widespread dominant brain wave alpha frequency increases. International journal of psychophysiology : official journal of the International Organization of Psychophysiology, 74 (3), 192-8 PMID: 19765621

Heishman SJ, Kleykamp BA, & Singleton EG (2010). Meta-analysis of the acute effects of nicotine and smoking on human performance. Psychopharmacology, 210 (4), 453-69 PMID: 20414766


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Washington University School of Medicine
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Very interesting. I've never really had an interest in smoking, but if I did, I don't think the whole death thing would stop me. My friends who smoke just ignore that whole part of it.

UC Davis
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Wow, that's quite interesting about the effects of nicotine in smokers and non-smokers!

On another note, it would be interesting to survey smokers and find out the most common ways people got started smoking and what their thoughts were about the health implications when they started.  My guess is a lot of people start because of peer pressure when they are young and then realise they actually quite like it or become addicted. I don't think I've met many people who started up smoking at an older age, apart from my mum who tried it on her wedding day because her mum said it would help with the nerves, and promptly threw up and never had another!

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"I merely wanted to understand why I, and others, continued to taunt death and indulge in something so clearly unhealthy."

Got time for a lesson in the biology of addiction?

On another note, one reason it has those positive effects is because nicotine is a mimic, you might say, of a natural neurotransmitter called acetylcholine (ACh). In fact, we actually classify types of ACh receptors by whether they respond to nicotine (so called nicotinic ACh receptors, nAChR), or muscarine (a toxin derived from fungus I think). When nicotine gets into the brain it activates ACh receptors in your cortex, limbic system etc.

The downstream effect of this stimulus is release of 'extra' dopamine and other 'pleasure' neurotransmitters, and the downstream effect of this is upregulation of gene transcription...and

...well, leme know if you want the $5 lesson or the $10 lesson  Smile


it all boils down to - it affects your brain which feels good and you get addicted to the need to feel that, if that makes sense...

Washington University School of Medicine
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Good info Tideliar.

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Cheers. I understand also, with it's mimicking effects, that sufferers of certain psychopathologies smoke at higher rates because it, in effect, self-medicates their particular disorder. From memory Depressive and certain schizotypes.

I guess I didn't necessarily express the sentiment I  was hoping to - but it should have been - why did humanity choose this as a drug to use; and why exactly 'it feels good'. What does 'it feels good' mean, anyway? I couldn't find anything on emotional regulation, and most first-time users report nausea when smoking or taking nicotine. I choose to define 'it feels good' as cognitive benefits, but other disciplines will paint that picture with different colours, and justifiably so...


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Why not give up the cigarettes and just take some nicotine? I know that if you are already addicted, smoking can't be beat for the speed and efficacy of delivery of nicotine. But nicotine on it's own is... well, expensive and not harmless. But not the killer that is injecting tobaco specific nitrosamines and high doses of polyaromatic hydrocarbons into one of the most absorpsive and sensitive tissues in your body.

Jason Goldman
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Also, there's some amount of hedonic reversal going on. Like alcohol or capsaicin or jumping into arctic waters...inately aversive stuff that we eventually start to like. (except with alcohol and smoking, there's also the addictive bit, which doesn't make it *exactly* hedonic reversal, but if you say you're not addicted, then maybe there's something to it still)

Jason Goldman
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Let's try out the blockquote:


most first-time users report nausea when smoking or taking nicotine.


See this:

Washington University School of Medicine
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Geez, Goldman! You're quite the fount of information!

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Nausea can happen even for sensitized (habituated? Jason?) smokers. If you chain smoke (usually associated with drinking) you often end up feeling much worse than if you'd just drank. Also, common with with smokers starting out on cessation products (gum, patch, lozenge).

What I find particularly fascinating are the 'side-effects'  of cessation products. I've never tried the gum (hate gum anyway - look like a fucking cow chewing the fucking cud much?) but the lozenges mnake you drool considerably at first. If you swallow your saliva the ACh obviously hits your stomach...and kick starts the parasympathetic branch of your autonomic nervous system (relax & repose not flight or fight). You get the most sudden and nauseating hunger pangs, as if you have instantly become ravenous! And also there are associated...ahem...downstream effects too (ACh has an antoginistc effect on the colon).

The patch is interesting too, because nAChR (nicotine sensitive ACh receptors) are also responsible for skeletal muscle neurotransmission  (They're remarkably unbiquitous, being found all three of your nervous systems). So, one has this patch on a shoulder , say, and nictoine is crossing the skin barrier and reaches the muscle where it can stimulate a reaction in the muscle cells... You get cramp!

The muscle won't tighten into a tetanic state, but there is a dull and underlying ache, similar to what you might feel after getting a vaccnation shot. Again, it only lasts for a while, but unlike the lozenges where your mouth adapts rapidly, because you have to move the patch to a new location everyday, you just have to live with this muscular ache.

I've heard some smokers say this sensory/nociceptive side-effect helps them because it makes them aware that trying to quit; and as we know from my post 'Smoke Break' if you try not to think about it you're actually making it worse for yourself.

Finally, the patch comes with the advisory 'remove at night'. DO THIS. If you sleep with the patch on the constant ACh stimulation causes the most fucked up, vivid, terrifying and lucid dreams!

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"(They're remarkably unbiquitous, being found all three of your nervous systems)."

Obviously not a neologism, but a typo. 'ubiquitous'

Washington University School of Medicine
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Wow! I had no idea there were such side effects associated with the cessation products. It's a wonder anyone uses them at all!

UC Davis
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One of the guys in the lab used to smoke because he was at high risk of Alzheimer's disease and had found that nicotine would help slow down the progression of the disease.  Of course he was smoking 5 a day, so he may not make to the age at which AD would even kick in!

UC Davis
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Huh, well that's interesting.  My nan has Alzheimers and used to smoke like a chimney.  I wonder if she hadn't smoked whether she would have developed the disease at an earlier age?

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"One of the guys in the lab used to smoke because he was at high risk of Alzheimer's disease and had found that nicotine would help slow down the progression of the disease"

Urgh, that's so fucking stupid

Washington University School of Medicine
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It's amazing the things that people will believe!

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