When Don Draper lights up a Lucky Strike, the smokers in the Mad Men audience are simultaneously — and likely unconsciously — planning the actions involved in having a cigarette, according to a new study published in the Journal of Neuroscience.
Researchers led by Todd Heatherington of Dartmouth scanned the brains of 17 right-handed smokers and 17 right-handed nonsmokers while they watched the film Matchstick Men, which, like Mad Men, contains many smoking scenes. Participants were not aware that the study was focused on smoking. Researchers found that brain regions involved in planning and coordinating hand actions lit up when smokers watched actors do so. These areas were active only for the hand that the smoker typically used to have a smoke. (More on Time.com: 5 Tips for Kicking Bad Habits)
Although a quite entertaining spoof report on the study has been making its way around the Web, suggesting that these findings essentially belong in Duh: The Journal of Obvious Results, the paper does actually add support to research on “mirror neurons” as well as to the understanding of addiction.
Mirror neuron circuits become active not when people perform an action, but when they see others do so. For example, when if you see someone else smile, your mirror neurons turn on, even sending a preparatory signal to the muscles involved in returning the grin — whether or not you ultimately respond in kind.
Mirror neurons are believed to be critical in allowing us to recognize the thoughts and intentions of others. And understanding how they work has implications far beyond addictions — for example, autism involves difficulty with social relationships that rely on perceiving other people’s intent, and altruistic behavior requires being able to take others’ perspectives. (More on Time.com: 4 Tips for Staying on the Wagon)
Further, in the case of the current study, the fact that regions of the brain involved in planning behavior for hand movements are activated only in smokers when they watch smoking and only in the appropriate hand region suggests that this mirroring is not just the unconscious mirroring everyone does when watching others act. Instead, this may be specifically setting smokers up for their next cig: prior research has shown that, not surprisingly, smokers are more likely to crave cigarettes when they watch films that include smoking than when they watch those that do not.
Other research on addictions suggests that getting hooked also affects areas of the brain involved in learning — essentially strengthening circuits that drive motivation to continue the habit. Smokers and other addicts learn “too well” to make their habits automatic, and new studies like Heatherington’s could help us understand exactly how that may undermine self-control.