Peter Stromberg, Smoking and Entrainment

Peter Stromberg, a professor of anthropoology at the University of Tulsa, is also part of our Encultured Brain session. His paper is entitled Cultural Neuroscience and the Idea of Addiction: Thoughts from the Early Phase Routines of Tobacco Use. Here is the abstract:

It has been repeatedly demonstrated that aspects of social context shape the experience of drug use. This paper extends our understanding of this relationship by exploring the cognitive and emotional effects of routines of self-administration of tobacco among one group of beginning smokers. This information is derived from a one-year qualitative study of 55 first-year college students on two campuses. Analysis of interviews done in the project has revealed that low level smokers on these campuses use tobacco almost exclusively at collective gatherings. Thus interactive processes such as social entrainment, imitation, and absorption (an attentive state) are heavily implicated in early-phase routines of self-administration. As one student says, “…when you see someone else light a cigarette, you get this urge to do the same.” I look briefly at the neurobiology of these mental processes, pointing out that these are all very important mechanisms that function to regulate social interaction among some species of monkeys and non-human primates. Thus these mental processes have a long evolutionary history, and much research now suggests that there are aspects of these processes that are not under voluntary control. As such, beginning smokers who become entrained with other smokers, for example, may experience their activity as being influenced by something beyond their familiar ability to control their own action. Such experiences may contribute to the cultural idea of tobacco as a substance with the capacity to override the will of the user and foster dependency.

Peter has published previously on early stage smoking in the paper Taking Play Seriously. Here are some relevant lines: “Cigarettes have been socially engineered to become potent symbols. Therefore, they need to be understood as cultural products invested with cognitive and emotional salience as well as nicotine delivery devices engineered to create a population of dependent users. In this paper, we look at the symbolism of cigarettes, but unlike many researchers examining this topic, we attend as much to what tobacco users do with cigarettes as to what smoking means to them cognitively. Based on interviews with low-level smokers conducted on two college campuses, we suggest that students use tobacco in order to accomplish interactional goals and to structure social time and space that would otherwise be ambiguously defined.”

Peter got his start at Stanford, graduating with his PhD in cultural anthropology in 1981. He subsequently published the 1993 book Language and Self-Transformation: A Study of the Christian Conversion Narrative. Over his career his main interests have been the anthropology of mental health and the religious and secular meaning systems in contemporary Western societies. Of late, he has turned his attention to the rhetoric of self-transformation in contemporary society and is planning to extend that work by looking at self-transformation in dynamic psychotherapy.

Peter has a forthcoming book Caught in Play: How Entertainment Works on You. Stanford University Press gives us this blurb:

Most of us have become so immersed in a book or game or movie that the activity temporarily assumed a profound significance and the outside world began to fade. Although we are likely to enjoy these experiences in the realm of entertainment, we rarely think about what effect they might be having on us. Precisely because it is so pervasive, entertainment is difficult to understand and even to talk about.

To understand the social role of entertainment, Caught in Play looks closely at how we engage entertainment and at the ideas and practices it creates and sustains. Though entertainment is for fun, it does not follow that it is trivial in its effect on our lives. As this work reveals, entertainment generates commitments to values we are not always willing to acknowledge: values of pleasure, self-indulgence, and consumption.

If you are interested in knowing more, you can contact Peter at peter-stromberg at

As for onsite, you might check out what I just wrote about craving and compulsion, but the pieces on Grand Theft Auto and on Running and Dissociation are also relevant. Plus I wrote a whole series on play back in February.

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