Can Smoking Make You Stupid? The Relationship Between Smoking and Intelligence

The effects of smoking on a person’s physical health is well known, but if you need more reason to stop smoking cigarettes, new research affords insight into the effect of nicotine addiction on people’s mental health, in particular the relationship between smoking and intelligence. This article examines the effect of smoking, especially long-term smoking, on a person’s brainpower.

Cigarette Smoke Kills Eye Cells - Scientific American

A person who starts smoking cigarettes often finds that the nicotine does indeed make them sharper. Tests such as the Stroop test, in which a participant must identify the colour of a word when the word itself describes a different colour (or vice-versa), have shown that nicotine administration decreases the amount of time needed to perform a correct identification Plug Play Pods . Short-term verbal recall and the ability to process large amounts of information quickly are also improved.

However, the longer a person has smoked cigarettes, the more their level of performance on such tests decrease. The problem lies with the fact that if they do smoke before such a test, their performance goes up to the baseline level, which only seems to support the notion that cigarettes improve intelligence. This is a classic example of how addiction works: a person can only function normally when they have ingested the substance they are addicted to, a phenomenon that also will be familiar to people dependent on alcohol and cannabis.

Studies have shown that frequency of smoking is inversely correlated with academic performance, with nonsmokers outperforming smokers and light smokers outperforming heavy smokers. This by itself is not enough to suggest that smoking makes you less intelligent, as less intelligent people might be more likely to smoke to begin with, or there might be other factors, such as a disturbed home life, that cause both smoking and decreased academic achievement.

Other research suggests that long-term smoking does have a negative effect on intelligence in older adults. In a battery of psychological tests that measured, among other things, psychomotor speed, it was shown that being a smoker slowed down the reactions of the brain. Interestingly, the study showed that there was no difference in psychomotor speed between ex-smokers and nonsmokers, suggesting that mental performance, at least in older adults, can be improved by quitting smoking.

One reason for this might be because smoking contributes to a number of physical conditions that have the effect of reducing blood flow to the brain. Another reason might be that smoking puts the brain under “oxidative stress”, which can cause cell death. There is no reason to assume that this process is limited to older people only; it might well merely have a less significant effect on younger people.

A person in a state of tobacco addiction will find that, if their cognitive abilities are to be tested, that giving up smoking will, at least temporarily, make them incapable of performing tasks at the required level. This is unfortunate because it means that under times of mental stress (and who isn’t under a state of mental stress nowadays?), trying to stop smoking cigarettes will only add extra stress when a person might already be at their limit. Intelligence is always at a premium, and the deleterious cognitive effects of nicotine withdrawal might just be too much to take on.

Luckily, examining the relationship between intelligence, stress and smoking offers some useful information. The answer is to time your attempt to kick the habit with a period of lighter cognitive demand. If you have a holiday coming up, decide that you won’t attempt any project that requires full brainpower until you are tobacco free. Make sure you don’t let yourself get bored – use your time to carry out activities which are less mentally demanding, such as reading a book on the beach or going hiking. The mental energy that is freed up by not working can be put to understanding something like the token economy method instead.

Most prisoners smoke. This is universally the case regardless of country of origin. A 2006 Polish survey indicated that 81% of men incarcerated in Polish prisons were smokers and a recent New Zealand survey showed a smoking incidence of 67% amongst prisoners which represents a three fold increase in smoking behaviour compared to the fortunate free in New Zealand society. Prison is not a microcosm of society. The average prisoner is socially and economically disadvantaged and often poorly educated.

The banning of smoking in prisons is a relatively new phenomenon but is likely to increase in the coming years. An estimated 50% of American correctional institutions are smoke free and New Zealand has recently introduced a smoking ban in all of its prisons. Many reasons have been put forward by governments in support of prison smoking bans. The fear of lawsuits from prison staff and prisoners alike provide strong motivation. A ruling by the US Supreme Court decreed that exposing a prisoner to tobacco smoke represents “a cruel and unusual punishment”. There is no doubt that banning smoking is great news for the prisoner’s long term health, as long as they remain locked up. Whether banned, or not, tobacco represents a very saleable commodity within the confines of prison walls and tobacco has traditionally been seen as prison currency; once banned it becomes contraband. The problem with contraband is that it brings violence and intimidation in its wake. Also prison guards may become tempted to fuel the supply of tobacco; the financial rewards may prove overwhelming. It is fair to say that the vast majority of guards are honest individuals however the corrupt few are ideally placed to exploit the system. After all, they are the system. Prison visitors can also be a source of smuggled tobacco. Although visitors are constantly monitored throughout their stay on prison property they can be remarkably inventive and resourceful and it is unrealistic to expect that this route of tobacco smuggling can be entirely stemmed. It seems that other contraband items such as drugs are relatively easy to obtain and it is naive to think that tobacco could be an exception.

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