SCIENCE

Chinese researchers discover why so many writers are heavy smokers

Chinese scientists show heavy smoking boosts the imagination, though it harms rest of brain

PUBLISHED : Sunday, 26 October, 2014, 6:03am
UPDATED : Monday, 27 October, 2014, 10:42am

A Chinese study on how tobacco use damages the brain has also stumbled upon evidence heavy smoking can boost concentration and imagination - something scientists say could shed light on why many writers are attracted to lighting up.

But the researchers won't be pursuing this finding, they say, as it is "politically incorrect".

The study, conducted by scientists at the Wuhan Institute of Physics and Mathematics under the Chinese Academy of Sciences, found heavy smoking damages the brain overall, reducing the ability to process information and respond to it.

But two areas - one in charge of visual data processing and the other determining concentration levels - saw smoother communication among neurons after tobacco was used, according to Lei Hao, the lead scientist for the study, which was published in the academic journal Addiction Biology last month.

"Information is passed around in these areas with higher efficiency than in non-smokers," said Lei, a specialist in magnetic resonance imaging (MRI).

Lei's team compared the brain activity and associated changes in blood flow of 31 heavy smokers against 33 non-smokers. The heavy smokers had an average age of 50 and had smoked for 25 years, consuming at least two packs a day.

The more they smoked, the greater the efficiency among neurons observed in the two regions.

The areas are believed to play important roles in the creative writing process.

Explaining why they would not pursue the implications of this "positive effect", Lei said: "I will not say heavy smoking will lead to the creation of good writing or good writers. Such a conclusion would be politically wrong.

"What we observe in this study is a fact: that smoking can alter brain activity, and in certain regions there is increase in efficiency. But we cannot use the finding to encourage people [to smoke], because the negative side effects far exceed all the benefits."

The overall performance of a heavy smoker's brain was worse than that of a non-smoker, according to the study.

Permanent damage had been observed at the "default mode network", or brain regions that were active when a person was not focused and the brain was at wakeful rest.

The regions are believed to be tied to illnesses such as Alzheimer's disease, autism and schizophrenia.

"However much you may want to be a great writer, don't try it. The benefit is not worth the risk," Lei said.

Many famous writers were notorious smokers. Mo Yan, who won the Nobel Prize for Literature in 2012, was said to have exchanged the handwritten manuscript of a best-selling novel for 10 cartons of his favourite brand of cigarette.

In the West, smoking has been known among writers for centuries, from the 17th century French playwright Moliere, who asserted, "Whoever lives without tobacco doesn't deserve to live", to the Irish writer Oscar Wilde, who said, "A cigarette is the perfect type of a perfect pleasure".

"It is exquisite and it leaves one unsatisfied. What more can one want?"

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