Paying attention to cravings takes away their power.

In my new book The Willpower Instinct, I describe one of my favorite studies of self-control. I call it the “torture experiment.” It reveals how mindfulness can help us break free from even the most difficult habits:

Sarah Bowen, a research scientist in the Addictive Behaviors Research Center at the University of Washington, invited smokers who wanted to quit to participate in a study. Each brought an unopened pack of their favorite brand of cigarettes. When the smokers were all there, Bowen seated them around a long table. Then the torture began.


kelly-mcgonigalKelly McGonigal, Ph.D., is a health psychologist teaching at Stanford University and specializing in the mind-body connection. Her work focuses on how we can translate neuroscience and modern psychology research into practical strategies for better health, happiness, personal success, and relationships.
Editor: Hameeda Batool

“Take out your pack and look at it,” Bowen instructed. They did. “Now remove the cellophane,” she commanded. “Now open the pack.” She walked the smokers through each step, from breathing in the first smell of the opened pack to pulling out a cigarette, holding it, looking at it, and smelling it. Putting it in their mouth. Taking out a lighter. Bringing the lighter to the cigarette without igniting it. At each step, she forced participants to stop and wait for several minutes.

Here is a video by Dr. Sadaqat Ali in which he talks about adverse effects of tobacco smoking
Dr. Sadaqat Ali talks about adverse effects of tobacco smoking

Bowen wasn’t enjoying the smokers’ agony; her real aim was to investigate whether mindfulness can help smokers resist cravings.

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Before the torture test, half of the smokers had received a brief training in a technique called “surfing the urge.” [Click here to learn the full technique yourself from Bowen.] Bowen explained to the smokers that urges always pass eventually, whether or not you give in to them. When they felt a strong craving, they should imagine the urge as a wave in the ocean. It would build in intensity, but ultimately crash and dissolve. The smokers were to picture themselves riding the wave, not fighting it but also not giving in to it. They were instructed to pay close attention to the urge to smoke, without trying to change it or get rid of it. What thoughts were going through their mind? What did the urge feel like in the body?

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