How Sleep Could Help You Quit Smoking Cigarettes

This is a sample from our ‘Quit Cigarettes’ mission, which is currently live in the UK. Our goal is to increase the amount of people in the UK who quit cigarettes. Read more about our first mission here.

Dream hacker Moran Cerf wants to give smokers nightmares about cancer - he says it could help them beat addiction

It may be the most sophisticated computer on the planet but the human brain has a patchy track record when it comes to quitting cigarettes. The logical part of our cerebral matter says ‘I must quit for my health’ - yet it can have a hard time following through on its own good advice. All too often it finds itself being hacked by bugs in the system which scream ‘just one more’. And in an instant that pack of cigarettes is open, the aroma of tobacco swamps the nostrils, hits the brain and, well, you know the rest.

Enter Moran Cerf, a neuroscientist who believes that by tapping into our dreams and reinventing our “dreamscape” he can help conquer cigarette cravings for good. The French-Israeli computer hacker turned academic believes traditional health strategies which appeal to our conscious selves are flawed.

Rather, he believes the logical brain should be taken out of the equation and instead the quit smoking message should be delivered subconsciously into the part of the brain that thinks it likes smoking. He said: “Big pictures on cigarette packs warning that smoking kills are giving the right information but that doesn’t get the job done. The information is useless when it comes to behaviour.

“By introducing negative messages about smoking during sleep, when the unconscious brain is the recipient of the message, we could be able to make a bigger difference.

“The end game is to tap into the brain and make it dream about the unpleasant consequences of smoking.“

Waking up dreaming about having cancer, or your wife and children crying because you have cancer could be a powerful tool. “More powerful than a warning on a cigarette packet.” It is not as far-fetched as it may sound. Mr Cerf, who is Professor of Neuroscience and Business at the Kellogg School of Management at Northwestern University in Illinois, spent ten years as a computer hacker breaking into government and financial institutions to improve their security before becoming an academic. His hacker’s mindset has led him to approach human behaviour and neuroscience in a unique way. His research addresses questions such as “How do our memories shape the way we behave?” and “How can we control our emotions?”

So how exactly can he help smokers quit cigarettes?

He has discovered that our sleeping brains retain some of the content encountered when we are awake and that our dreams can and do influence our waking actions. So by taking someone in stage three sleep and introducing a smoke smell through their nostrils followed by a rotten egg smell, that person’s brain will associate the smoke smell with unpleasantness.

Cerf explained: “What we are after is getting into the brain when you are sleeping because that is when it is most receptive - when its guard is down if you like. Through introducing smells via a gentle spray into the nose and immediately following this with a smell of rotten eggs it has been shown that it creates a reaction of disgust to the cigarette smoke. You have to get the right sleep window when the brain is more receptive. This is crucial."

It becomes effortless - the person just doesn’t want to smoke any more

“Then the person wakes up and has no idea what has happened but they have less of a desire to smoke because of the disgusting association they have made. It reduces the desire for a bit but it lasts for a short period only, so it is not the solution as yet but it could be part of the solution. People who want to quit will not have to fight themselves and beat themselves up. It becomes effortless - the person just doesn’t want to smoke any more.  They don’t know what is happening. 

“They just don’t want to smoke on a subconscious level and that becomes a conscious act to not smoke. More work needs to be done on this area to sustain the effect. But we know in the short term it makes people want to smoke less.”

But Cerf’s main aim is to actually create dreams which influence human behaviour and help people quit smoking, overeating, drinking too much or pursuing other self-harming behaviours.

He is now working on influencing our dreams by having a subject watch a film or read a book about cancer so that when cigarette smells are introduced during sleep - this time in stage 4 or REM (rapid eye movement sleep) - it will trigger a negative smoking dream, maybe even a nightmare about cancer.

Cerf added: “There is a theory that suggests dreams are a way to assimilate and evaluate things you have not yet experienced.

“When you wake up you forget what it was about but you have some emotional residue. So now the end game would be that we can make you dream of something (bad) that is the consequence of smoking. You may not remember the dream but the emotional residue will be that you don’t want to smoke because deep down in your subconscious you know it is harmful."

“It’s there in your dreamscape - you dreamt it. You know it. Unlike me telling you ‘hey smoking is bad for you’ and you are going to die - information in other words - dreams can make you actually feel what is to experience having cancer. We are working on giving people that emotional experience.

“We can definitely trigger smoking dreams or nicotine dreams but we need to get better at it. Right now we have randomly tried and with some people it works and with some people it doesn’t. We have come a long way on reading dreams but we have much further to go.”