You might think you know what will convince you to quit smoking, but your brain knows better. Brain scans can predict how likely people shown anti-smoking ads are to give up cigarettes even better than the smokers themselves, a recent study from the University Michigan and the University of California, Los Angeles finds.
The researchers showed 28 smokers—all actively trying to quit—a sequence of anti-smoking messages. As the smokers were watching the clips, the researchers scanned their brains using functional magnetic resonance imaging, which looks at changing neural activity. After each ad, the smokers rated how each ad affected their goal to quit.
A month later, the smokers were down to an AVERAGE of five cigarettes a day, compared to 21 prior to the scan. (And they didn’t lie—researchers made sure to test the smokers’ lungs for carbon monoxide before and after the study.) But some smokers faired better than others, and that was reflected in what happened to their brains as they watched the messages: The more activity the smokers had in their medial prefrontal cortex—an area of the brain that helps you think about your own motivations and work toward goals—during the ads, the greater success they had in quitting.
Here’s how it might work: “One possibility is that these quitting ads connect better with some people than others. We might be tapping into a deeper connection with their identity as someone who can quit, or their future goal setting,” says lead author Emily Falk, Ph.D., director of the Communication Neuroscience Laboratory at the University of Michigan. “For people who are showing increased activity in this region, it is possible that they’re connecting the message with their own sense of self and their own goals better. It is possible that the message is getting under their skin more effectively than the people who show less activity. Maybe the message just isn’t doing it for those people.”
We aren’t very good at reporting that response, though—at least not yet—Falk explains. Even when people admitted they were moved by the ads, that wasn’t as good of a predictor of success as neural activity in the medial prefrontal cortex.
Naturally, Falk says the next step in her research is to tap into which messages work the best for people trying to quit smoking. “Can we create ads that are effective for the largest number of people at a population level by seeing a neural response in a relatively small group of people first? Before a lot of money is spent on a public health campaign, we want to figure out what kinds of messages are going to resonate with the most people. Where are we going to get the most bang for our buck?”
Don’t get us wrong: The research sounds very promising, but it’s going to take time.