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Beating Addictions

The brain is an efficient machine, quickly learning survival techniques through rewards and positive reinforcement. But when it comes to addiction, the brain is almost too good at its job.

A growing body of research — including trials by Judson Brewer, MD, PhD, director of research at the Center for Mindfulness at the University of Massachusetts Medical School — uses fMRI scans to pinpoint how addiction hijacks the brain’s learning process, “hardwiring” addictive behaviors that feel good but are bad for us.

Brewer believes that mindfulness can short-circuit these addiction pathways.

Using brain scans, he discovered that meditation calms the posterior cingulate cortex, which revs up when cravings hit. He hypothesized that mindfulness exercises could help treat even the strongest addictions, such as smoking.

To test this theory, Brewer conducted a clinical trial in which he taught smokers simple mindfulness techniques, such as recognizing cravings and tuning in to how their bodies felt from moment to moment. By helping volunteers ride out their cravings instead of acting on them, the mindfulness techniques decouple the link between craving and smoking. This effectively dismantles the addictive loop and aids people in retraining their brains.

“We get twice the quit rates of gold-standard cessation treatment by teaching people these very basic practices,” Brewer says. “They become disenchanted with the behavior just by paying attention to it. This is what basic mindfulness is all about: seeing clearly the results of your actions.”

Anti-addiction mindfulness exercises can work for people struggling with other addictions, too, says Brewer. His app, Craving to Quit (, provides a 21-day program designed to make your cigarette habit go up in smoke. The app includes a daily tracker and mindfulness practices geared to help you put out your cigarette for good. And he’s just launched the Healthy Eating app ( with a 28-day plan for “changing your relationship to eating.”

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