Good Reading : August 2015
GOOD READING AUGUST 2015 59 out what had happened to me all those years ago. How had my brain become so addled for such a long time? How did I finally quit? As I waded through a sea of papers on the neuroscience of addiction, I learned how circuits devoted to goal seeking become captivated by the appeal of a single goal. A drug, a drink, gambling, porn – whatever it is that satisfies a powerful desire, at least partially, while simultaneously increasing its own appeal. I started to understand the dark side of the brain as a scientist as well as an ‘end user’ – and I began to convey what I was learning to my students, with passion, precision, and, I hope, insight. WARNING: MAY BE HABIT-FORMING The word ‘neuroplasticity’ is on everyone’s lips these days. The ter m simply describes brain changeability and elevates it to a first principle. Which makes sense: there’s nothing more fundamental to the human brain than changeability.Yet neuroscientists who study addiction seem to have missed the point. They put people through a number of brain scans, and when they notice changes after someone has taken a lot of cocaine or drunk a lot of booze, they say, ‘Look! The brain has changed!’ If neuroplasticity is the rule, not the exception, then they’re actually not saying much at all. The brain is supposed to change with new experiences. In fact, the newer, more attractive, and more engaging something is, the more likely the brain is to change, and the more likely those changes are to condense into habits – an outcome of more frequent repetitions. People have referred to addiction as a habit throughout recent history. That’s just what it is. It’s a nasty, often relentless habit. A ser ious habit. An expensive habit. But what makes it so endur ing, so relentless, so difficult to change? What makes it different from what we might call more benign habits? Three things. First, it’s a habit of thinking and feeling – a mental habit – not just a behavioural habit. It’s easier to stop singing in the shower than it is to stop seeing the world as violent or unfair. Second, the feeling part of addiction always includes the feeling of desire, which is of course the theme of this book. And third, it’s a habit that becomes compulsive – a topic that will be explored in detail later. Perhaps all habits, once formed, are compulsive to some degree. The brain is certainly built to make any action, repeated enough times, into a compulsion. But the emotional heart of addiction – in a word, desire – makes compulsion inevitable, because unslaked desire is the springboard to repetition, and repetition is the key to compulsion. Like all habits, addiction quite simply grows and stabilises, in brain tissue that is designed (by evolution) to change and stabilise. Yet addiction belongs to a subset of habits: those that are most difficult to extinguish. To understand addiction, we need to see it as the outcome of a normally functioning brain, not a diseased brain. Still, we must acknowledge that it’s an extreme outcome, and that’s what has to be explained. Not all habits start with desire or attraction. Anxiety and other negative emotions can cultivate new habits too. Nail biting is one example, but so are gaze aversion, classic defence mechanisms such as rationalization and perfectionism, and the habitual avoidance of certain people, places, sexes, or races. Personality patterns based on anxiety arise from a slightly more complicated feedback loop, involving anxiety (or shame, or outright fear) and escape, which isn’t rewarding at all. Avoidance of possible threats isn’t fun, but the emotion of anxiety can strengthen habits of avoidance until they overtake the rest of the personality. And maybe that beats overwhelming anxiety. The habits of desire that character ise addiction are often inter mingled with habits born of anxiety or shame. The Biology of Desire: Why addiction is not a disease by Marc Lewis is published by Scribe, rrp $29.99. BOOK BITE 3 There’s nothing more fundamental to the human brain than changeability.