Smoking is described as one of the hardest habits for people to kick. Nicotine dependence is the most common form of chemical dependence in the United States. Research by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention suggests that nicotine may be as addictive as heroin, cocaine, and alcohol. Smokers often require several attempts at quitting before they are truly free. A new study may offer some help to those who are trying to quit smoking. It suggests that doing “self-expanding activities," such as hobbies or puzzles, can help alleviate nicotine cravings, making it easier to quit.

A collaboration of researchers from Stony Brook University, Idaho State University, the American Cancer Society, the Chinese Academy of Sciences, University of Georgia, and Brown University have released a new report outlining the effects that self-expanding activities can have on the brain. Participants were asked to complete a random sequence of expanding games and non-expanding games with their romantic partners, while an fMRI scanned their brain’s activities. The expanding games offered new choices and more targets for study participants. They were also significantly more exciting than non-expanding activities.

Results showed that participants who partook in self-expanding activities were able to significantly decrease their nicotine cravings. This was because the self-expansion activated the major reward region of the brain more than non-self-expanding activities. The major reward region of the brain is associated with addictive behaviors. This study was the first to use brain imaging to show that engaging in exciting or self-expanding activities such as puzzle solving, games, or hobbies with one’s partner helped to reduce nicotine craving. The self-expanding activities could potentially substitute for the rewards the brain receives from nicotine. “This suggests such activities may be a major new route to help people reduce the desire to smoke,” Dr. Arthur Aron, a research professor at the Stony Brook University, explained to The Epoch Times.

Researchers hope that future studies will be able to focus on which specific aspect of the self-expanding activities has this effort on the brain. They also want to explore the possibilities of using self-expansion activities in clinical interventions for smoking cessation. “In addition to the important of this work for smoking cessation, this was also the first brain-imaging study to demonstrate with one’s romantic partner, an effect shown in many behavioral studies to be very beneficial to relationships, but now supported by brain research,” Aron concluded.

Source: Xu X, Aron A, Westmaas JL, Wang J, Sweet LH. An fMRI Study of Nicotine-Deprived Smokers’ Reactivity to Smoking Cues during Novel/Exciting Activity. PLoS ONE. 2014.