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Nicotine: Not All Bad, Especially When It Comes Time To Focus

Nicotine for attention

I’ve heard that many writers, whether it be TV, comedy, or book authors, swear that taking cigarette breaks is a crucial aspect of their writing process. It helps them be more creative, stay focused and remain relaxed. While we all know that smoking is bad, could there be some merit to these proclaimed benefits?

Science shows us that there actually are some cognitive benefits to taking nicotine. There was some conflict between the results of some studies, but I will be talking about the results that a majority of researchers came to. Before we go any further, if you didn’t already know, nicotine is an addictive substance so use it safely and at your own risk.

Maintaining Your Attention

No matter how hard you try to continuously grind away at a task, you have to give up at some point to take a break. Luckily for us, there are many tips and techniques to maintain your attention longer (for another cool way head here) and science has shown that nicotine use is one of them.

How Nicotine Affects the Brain

Many studies have been done on how nicotine affects our brains. In one interesting study, researchers administered a nicotine patch to participants and measured brain activity. Among many other changes, the largest change was a deactivation in the Default Mode Network which is the part of the brain associated with resting brain function [1].


Normally, we would interpret a deactivation in the brain as a bad thing. We want our brains to be as active as possible, right? Well, it turns out that the Default Mode Network requires a hefty portion of our brains processing power by working in the background. Turning this off allows our brain to put more resources towards the task at hand.

Use Nicotine To Stay Focused

Those same researchers also wanted to test how the nicotine patches affected the participants’ performance in a few standardized tests. Interestingly, nicotine didn’t improve performance early on but DID improve how long the nicotine group was able to concentrate which led to better performance later on in the tasks.

“when attention towards a task starts to dwindle and task-independent thought processes intrude, nicotine may help impede such internal processes and maintain the alerting properties of the task stimuli.”

This has also been found elsewhere; participants given nicotine in the form of tablets or smoking maintained attention during a monotonous task longer than a control who was given a placebo (tablet or cigarette with no nicotine) [2]. Another study also found that smoking (possibly vaping) was most effective due to higher blood levels being achieved.

vaping nicotine stay focusedOther Interesting Benefits From Nicotine Use

Aside from the increased ability to maintain focus, there are many other benefits researchers have found that stem from nicotine use. One useful benefit was that short and long-term memory was improved in smokers and non-smokers who were given nicotine [3]. This is awesome and further solidifies a case for nicotine as a useful nootropic, but they hypothesized that the reason for this benefit may be the result of maintaining quality attention for longer periods of time like we talked about earlier.

The same group also found that response accuracy increased in the nicotine groups which could also be a result of higher quality focus but may also be due to the relaxing effects nicotine has. Furthermore, nicotine increased the response accuracy, especially under high-pressure situations. An extreme example of this was shown in pilots. Amazingly, pilots that were given nicotine performed better in an intense flight simulator than the control group that was not given anything [4].

“At the behavioral level, we found that nicotine improved performance in all active conditions in terms of response accuracy”

Nicotine and Brain Diseases

When we think of cigarettes, we immediately begin thinking about all the diseases that arise as a result of smoking. It definitely wreaks havoc on the heart and lungs among others. However, I bet you didn’t expect to hear that smoking has been correlated with a lower incidence of some diseases.

These diseases are all typically diseases of the brain and have been specifically correlated to, you guessed it, nicotine. Some specific examples of these include improvements in condition and lower occurrence of Alzheimer’s, Parkinson’s, schizophrenia and ADHD.

Where to Go From Here

With all the evidence shown here, I hope that you are still repulsed by the idea of smoking cigarettes. However, maybe some of the stigma around nicotine by itself, which is mostly unharmful unless abused, has been lifted. If you do want to try it, I would recommend trying some sort of vape with a liquid that contains small levels of nicotine and work your way up to a level that works for you. While I’m not asking you to try nicotine, keep an open mind when it comes to the benefits it may hold.

How has nicotine helped you?

Comment below!


[1] Hahn, B., et al. “Nicotine Enhances Visuospatial Attention by Deactivating Areas of the Resting Brain Default Network.” Journal of Neuroscience, vol. 27, no. 13, 2007, pp. 3477–3489., doi:10.1523/jneurosci.5129-06.2007.
[2] Stolerman, I. P., et al. “ChemInform Abstract: Nicotine Psychopharmacology: Addiction, Cognition and Neuroadaptation.” ChemInform, vol. 26, no. 25, 2010, doi:10.1002/chin.199525308.
[3] Lawrence, Natalia S, et al. “Cognitive Mechanisms of Nicotine on Visual Attention.” Neuron, vol. 36, no. 3, 2002, pp. 539–548., doi:10.1016/s0896-6273(02)01004-8.
[4] Newhouse, P, et al. “Effects of Nicotinic Stimulation on Cognitive Performance.” Current Opinion in Pharmacology, vol. 4, no. 1, 2004, pp. 36–46., doi:10.1016/j.coph.2003.11.001.

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