Nobel Prize Winner Author’s Amazing Insight into Cigarette Addiction

Forget Nicotine. Two Other Reasons Why It’s Hard to Quit Smoking

Chemical addiction is only one-third of the story

smoking addiction why it is hard to quit
Photo by cottonbro from Pexels

I always had a love-hate relationship with smoking.

Back in college, I was a 2-pack smoker. Then I quit for 35 years. Not a single puff, until my mom died in 2018. Then I started to smoke again.

After pushing my way up to a pack a day, I quit again recently. This time I feel I quit for good, again.

Part of the reason why I quit for the second time was this very article you are reading now. As I was thinking about and researching this article, I found renewed courage and new reasons to quit smoking that I wanted to share with you.

3 Reasons

There are three reasons why it is very hard to quit smoking cigarettes:

  • Nicotine addiction
  • Nostalgia for a previous ID
  • Placeholder for postponed action

Nicotine Addiction

This one is obvious. Nicotine is addictive. We all know that. Period. Once you get hooked, you’ll keep wanting more.

In case you wonder about the physiological mechanism of nicotine addiction, here is a detailed explanation…

Nicotine is actually a molecule that is very close to Vitamin B-6 in structure but even 50 milligrams of it it can kill in minutes. However, smoking rather than digesting directly oxidizes the tobacco alkaloids and reduces their toxicity.

Nicotine molecule establishes a bridge between the brain neurons which initially creates faster neural transmission. That’s why we feel we can think better and faster when we first start to smoke. It gives us a high that we enjoy and want to repeat.

But this bridge remains in place even when there are no nerve pulses transmitting between neurons. The same bridge becomes an obstruction. The early stimulating effect (like a higher heartbeat rate) of nicotine is lost, as explained by Penny Le Couteur & Jay Burreson, in Napoleon’s Buttons: 17 Molecules That Changed History:

“[A]s the smoker continues to get nicotine, the heart rate and the rate at which the brain gets oxygen slows down. This leads to a calming effect for the smoker. That’s why smokers say they need to smoke to “calm their nerves down.””

But obviously, smoking is the number one cause of lung cancer.

Le Couteur and Burreson add: “As well, longtime tobacco users are more susceptible to infections such as gangrene that thrive in the low oxygen conditions from poor circulation”.

But if nicotine were the only reason why people kept smoking it would be easier to quit. It’s not.

There are two more powerful reasons why we keep sucking on the “cancer stick.”

You Miss The Person You Are Not Anymore

Another important reason why we can’t quit is that cigarette is a bridge to a previous identity in the past. What we are missing is not the chemical addiction only, but also who we were — that “smoking guy” — in the past.

Now I understand that when my mom died I desperately wanted to time-travel to a time when we were together and she was alive. College was definitely such a period in my life when I saw my mom every day since we lived in the same house. And I was a heavy smoker back then.

So by becoming the tobacco smoker that I was 50 years ago I also tried to bring my mother back to life.

By David Shankbone — Orhan Pamuk discusses his new book about love, CC BY 3.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=13151115

Orhan Pamuk Misses His Previous Identity

The Nobel-winner Turkish author Orhan Pamuk used to be a smoker. After quitting, on the 272nd day of his abstinence, he wrote the essay “Since I Quit Smoking” in 1996 where he explained that, what he was really missing was his old identity as a man who used to smoke.

“I do not feel the attraction of cigarette’s chemical pull as was the case in the beginning. I miss my previous identity as if missing a very dear friend or missing a face. I want to revert to my previous personality. It’s as if they forced me to wear clothing that I don’t want; like they transformed me forcefully into a different person. If I smoke, it feels like I’ll return to my previous personality and the violence of the nights.”

He also mentions that when he used to smoke, the world slowed down and felt like it wasn’t changing at all. He felt he was immortal. “The world never changed when I smoked with great delight.”

“…But I’m Doing Something”

The third reason why we relapse and continue to use cigarettes is the “placeholder effect” of smoking.

This happens when we have a number of things that we were supposed to do but didn’t or couldn’t and we feel bad about it.

  • This can be an important goal unrealized at a certain date.
  • An important but uncomfortable phone call that you need to make but don't want to.
  • An important promise that you are already late in delivering.

In short, a failure in executing an important task.

When we fail to execute a project, a promise, or an obligation, we want to fill in that slot with an action substitute.

And that substitute looks something like drinking alcohol, using drugs, or smoking cigarettes.

When we smoke, we are saying to the world: “Hey, I’m busy can’t you see?… I’m not idle or a failure. I’m still in control. I am doing something concrete. I am smoking… Wait until I finish this task…”

Unless we reflect on this third reason and understand its devastating implications we will probably never be able to quit smoking for good.

Physiology of Brain Synapses

Lastly, I’d like to remind an interesting fact about how our brain synapses fire: in groups and bunches, and not individually.

Habits and addictions are neuron pathways in our brains that fire not one by one but in bunches.

To acquire the smoking habit, we add new neurons into the neural collection until they present a pattern acceptable to us.

To quit smoking, we need to break not just a single synaptic connection, but all the connections that fire en masse.

The Biggest Mistake

The biggest mistake people who try to quit smoking make is to assume that it’s just this “one thing” that they need to quit doing.

It’s not.

It’s a rich neural fabric of interwoven memories, emotions, and motor behavior that we need to sever and disconnect one by one.

That’s why it is a tough uphill battle since we always underestimate the depth of the roots of the tree.

No matter how many times you cut off the trunk of a tree, new scions keep shooting from the stump.

So to quit smoking, you need to eliminate at least the following three causes:

  • Nicotine addiction
  • Addiction to an earlier identity
  • Addiction to smoking as a place-holder for things not done

It’s perhaps no coincidence that if you put the image of a tree root system next to an image of the neural connections in our brains, they look very similar indeed.

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Ugur Akinci

Ugur Akinci

Award-winning Fortune 100 writer. Father. Husband. Brother. Fabricator. Got nothing to sell but tips are humbly welcomed.