The Insula, Smoking, And Addiction

The Associated Press Reports –

Damage to a silver dollar-sized spot deep in the brain seems to wipe out the urge to smoke, a surprising discovery that may shed important new light on addiction.

The research was inspired by a stroke survivor who claimed he simply forgot his two-pack a day addiction- no cravings, no nicotine patches, not even a conscious desire to quit. 

“The quitting is like a light went off,” said Dr. Antoine Bechara of the University of Southern California, who scanned the brains of 69 smokers and ex smokers to pinpoint the region involved.  “This is very striking.”

Clearly brain damage isn’t a treatment option for people struggling to kick the habit.

But the finding, reported in the journal Science, does point scientists toward new ways to develop anti-smoking aids by targeting this little-known brain region called the insula.

And it sparked excitement among addiction specialists who expect the insula to play a key role in other addictions, too.

Some 44 million Americans smoke, and the government says more than 400,000 a year die of smoking-related illnesses.

So, what is significant here?  The insula is intricately connected to the anterior cingulate, which is in many ways the “heart” of love in the brain, the home of extreme positive emotions. The anterior cingulate turns on and it reciprocally inhibits the negative emotions of the amygdala, for example. It is somewhat similar for the insula.

To make a long explanation very short, the greater the positive emotion, the less likely the action of the insula to initiate addictive or compensatory action or behavior (addiction.)  While we can’t affect the insula yet with surgery or with medication, we can affect it by emotion. Yes, positive emotion– but strong positive emotion.

We have least of all emphasized in The Emotional Gym, the third measure of an emotion- intensity. In fact, we have pretty much just worked with getting to the positive emotion and paid less attention to either duration or intensity. But it is intensity we want here, the capacity to exert strong positive emotion; to increase joy from a 3 to a 7, at will.

This is an oversimplification, but when I am at an opera and feel the strong emotions of joy and then make them deliberately stronger,  I am much less likely to be thinking or acting upon a desire to smoke, eat, or drink. I am much more likely to feel satiated, content, thrilled, moved, absorbed, focused, or intense and not distracted to compensate.

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1.  What would be the significance of low or flat affect and the action of the insula?

2.  What tools and strategies do you use to intensify positive emotion? Tell us what they are and how they work.

3.  What negative emotion is easiest for you to intensify? What might be the relationship for you between this negative emotion and forms of addictive behavior? Give us an example.

4.  How long has it been since you just “jumped for joy?” What happens when you just do it for no reason at all?

5.  What was your most recent and strongest joy-filled experience?  Which positive emotions were strongest? How were they expressed? Tell us your story.


About the author

Dr. William K. Larkin

Copyright © 2015 The Applied Neuroscience Institute