We have completed maintenance on DiscoverMagazine.com and action may be required on your account. Learn More

Smoking On Screen Lights Up a Smoker's Brain

By Andrew Moseman
Jan 19, 2011 9:48 PMNov 20, 2019 2:07 AM


Sign up for our email newsletter for the latest science news

When Don Draper takes a long, cool drag of his cigarette on screen and fills his "Mad Men" office with smoke, does it subtly nudge you toward lighting up yourself? If you're already a smoker, there's a good chance. A new study forthcoming in the Journal of Neuroscience suggests that watching on-screen smoking subtly effects the brains of people who already smoke, as if it were prepping them to light up. To test the idea, the researchers screened not TV's smokiest drama "Mad Men," but rather the first half-hour of Matchstick Men, the 2003 Nicholas Cage film about con artists.

They chose this movie because it features lots of smoking without alcohol use, sex or violence, which could have skewed the results. The volunteers did not know the experiment was about smoking. [LiveScience]

Dylan Wagner's team peered into the brains of 17 smokers and 17 non-smokers who watched Matchstick Men while inside an fMRI


The scans showed that specific parts of the brain went into action, but only if the person was a smoker. The particular brain areas were involved in planning and coordinating movements in the person's smoking hand – as if the brain were preparing itself for the physical actions required for smoking. Other brain circuits that dealt with urges and rewards also flickered into life when smokers saw actors light up on screen. At the end of the study, it was the smokers who had the most active reward circuits who said they craved a cigarette the most. [The Guardian]

Does this mean that if you made it your new year's resolution to swear off the cancer sticks, then you've also got to swear off the cable box and the big screen? No, Wagner says. You can't preemptively screen all the temptation out of your life (and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention reports

that about half of 2009's top-grossing movies contained smoking, so you'd be missing a lot of great cinema if you avoided the nicotine contingent). But, he says, you should be aware of what's happening to your brain:

"I believe people should simply be aware that exposing themselves to subtle cues of smoking, like those in a movie, may have an influence on their desire to smoke, but the first step in thwarting this is knowing about it," says Wagner. [New Scientist]

Related Content: 80beats: Surgeon General Report Focuses on the Risks of Just One Cigarette

80beats: Study: CT Scans Could Catch Smokers’ Lung Cancer Early

80beats: Butts of Steel? Recycled Cigarettes Protect Metal From Hydrochloric Acid

80beats: The Science Behind the Shoot-Out (or, Why Good Guys Can’t Win)

Image: flickr / Centophobia

1 free article left
Want More? Get unlimited access for as low as $1.99/month

Already a subscriber?

Register or Log In

1 free articleSubscribe
Discover Magazine Logo
Want more?

Keep reading for as low as $1.99!


Already a subscriber?

Register or Log In

More From Discover
Recommendations From Our Store
Shop Now
Stay Curious
Our List

Sign up for our weekly science updates.

To The Magazine

Save up to 40% off the cover price when you subscribe to Discover magazine.

Copyright © 2024 Kalmbach Media Co.