Does Tobacco Make Us Smarter?
  Vijai P. Sharma, Ph.D

The debate is so hot in nicotine research chambers these days that you can almost see smoke coming out of their chimneys.  The debate is about the effect of nicotine on mental performance.  Some researchers claim that nicotine is a performance enhancing "drug."  But the jury is still out on the subject--what they see as evidence for their claim is not what it seems.  

Some of the early studies were clearly at fault.  Researchers took smokers who hadn't had a cigarette for 10 to 12 hours and asked them to perform a few mental tasks.  Picture these frustrated and fidgety people who were deprived of tobacco for several hours and then asked to pour over some boring mental tasks?  The researchers then allowed them to smoke, and again measured their performance on those mental tasks.  What they found was, "significant improvement in their performance after the nicotine dosage." 

Does one have to be a rocket scientist to figure that what those researchers were measuring was not superior mental performance due to nicotine, but deteriorated performance due to the withdrawal effect of nicotine?  The enhanced performance they saw was simply the reversal of the mental stress under withdrawal.  

Some psychologists are of the opinion that most people who smoke are medicating themselves for mood problems and deficits in their attention and other mental abilities.  If I was a smoker, I would be offended by the assumption that people take to smoking because they are depressed or mentally "bombed out."  To find the reasons for smoking, one has to analyze why smokers first start smoking.  Children start smoking because of peer pressure and because they see smoking as the "cool" thing to do.  Some adolescents use nicotine and/or as a stimulant, for example, to stay awake.  

The reason people often continue to smoke later is not for enhanced physical or mental performance, but to fight the effects of nicotine withdrawal.  Effect of nicotine persists longer than most people imagine.  In two separate studies, reduced brain wave activity, depressed and irritated mood, and elevated cortisol level (a measure of stress) continued even after 31 days.  Therefore, the reason why people relapse when addicted to smoking is this: they are trying to avoid the clouded thinking and impaired attention and concentration that had resulted from nicotine withdrawal. 


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