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On addiction

The always excellent Maia Szalavitz has another good article: Most of Us Still Don’t Get It: Addiction Is a Learning Disorder

There’s a lot of misinformation pushed out there about addiction, and much of it is used to justify interventional drug policy – the whole notion that drugs enslave people against their will. And part of that is driven by “brain disease studies” showing that drug use “changes” the brain.

All experience changes the brain—it has to, in order to leave a mark on memory. If experience didn’t alter us, we couldn’t perceive, recall or react to it. So, simply changing the brain doesn’t make addiction a disease because not all changes are pathological. In order to use brain scans to prove addiction is a disease, you’d have to show changes that are only seen in addicted people, that occur in all cases of addiction and that predict relapse and recovery. No one has yet done this. […]

Researchers long argued that the pharmacology of particular drugs is what makes them addictive—that, say, cocaine’s alterations in the dopamine system cause a worse addiction than sex or food do because the drug directly affects the way the brain handles that chemical. But since sex and food only affect these chemicals naturally—and can create compulsive behavior that’s just as hard for some people to quit—why should we see cocaine differently?

Of course, none of this is to say that addiction isn’t a medical disorder or that addicted people shouldn’t be treated with compassion. What it does show, I believe, is that addiction is a learning disorder, a condition where a system designed to motivate us to engage in activities helpful to survival and reproduction develops abnormally and goes awry. […]

Addiction—whether to sex, drugs or rock & roll—is a disorder of learning. It’s not a disorder of hedonism or selfishness and it’s not a sign of “character defects.” This learning, of course, involves the brain—but because learning is involved, cultural, social and environmental factors are critical in shaping it. […]

We’ve been doing the equivalent of trying to treat obsessive-compulsive disorder by banning hand sanitizer when what we really need to understand is why and how obsessions and compulsions develop in particular people.

Fascinating and useful stuff.

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10 comments to On addiction

  • claygooding

    Thinking changes the brain,,,and the control freaks have always wanted to stop people doing that.

  • divadab

    Interested to know what Darkcycle has to say about this from a clinical perspective, and B.Snow or CJ from a habituated perspective.

    No doubt that habitual cannabis ingestion changes how you think, for the better, I think!

  • Nunavut Tripper

    Every experience in life whether positive or negative adds a few more “files” in your system and helps form who you are and where you’re going.
    To be healthy and prosper they should be positive experiences wherever possible.

  • CJ

    i dont know, ive definitely felt alot of resentment towards Maia Salavitz (sp whatever) in the past and have on other sites just totally ripped into her, then on the other hand sometimes i read stuff and im like oh thats great and then i look and see that she’s the author so lol IDK but what id say here is that I just abhorre (sp) the word/term “addiction”…. i wish instead it’d be “Taking drugs” or “doing drugs” or “using drugs”. Nothing wrong with doing drugs.

    • jean valjean

      there comes a point for some of us when doing drugs becomes having to do drugs. the physical and mental dependence on drugs like heroin are not in dispute by anyone with experience. what is your objection to the word addiction?

  • primus

    The term ‘addiction’ is a loaded one. It is also not well defined; ask any ten people what it means and you will get a wide variety of answers. It is my strong belief that addiction is merely the expression of very human characteristics, leading to some reward feedback loop which reinforces the behaviour. The addicted individual (AI) is shunned because of behaviours developed to cope with the artificially high price of the addictive substance under prohibition. Theft, prostitution etc. tend to be seen negatively by family and friends. Once the cycle of crime is broken, such as in Switzerland with prescription heroin, where the negative behaviours which lead to the shunning end or are greatly reduced, the AI is able to reconnect with family and friends who no longer fear the AI, which is leading many to request a reduction of their daily dose, and finally a total weaning from heroin usage. Why? They find that their new social connections are of more value to them than the use of heroin. They see a chance to normalise their lives and that is enough of a draw to get them off smack. This is mere reward substitution, and proves that even the long term addicted can make different choices when the opportunity is real. When most people hear the word ‘addiction’ they envision someone who is somehow ‘changed’ so they are less human, not worthy of the same respect as other humans. For that reason I try not to use it. What other word is there?

    • War Vet

      What Switzerland has done is on track with keeping Jesus’ commandments. One will always get more flies with honey and if heroin addictions etc are realy that bad and morbid for the user, then loving them like friends and family will help them survive and possibly quit. Prohibition offers no solution for why the user uses on a daily basis, but does a fine job in reenforcing the need to use and not quit. No reason why a special fund coming from our taxes cannot be used by cops to hand out clean needles, food, water, blankets and job offerings (like cleaning the streets and parks etc) for the addicted and homeless. Such love would reduce drug use in the long run for our society. Cops would get in good with the users and gather info on real crimes because of trust, thus making the job safer and easier on the cop at a reduced expense to the tax payer who would prefer job and heathcare and education growth in the nation.

    • Paul McClancy

      Some prohibs, particularly Peter Hitchens, deny addiction as a phenomena. Somehow this makes them double down in their delusions.

    • Windy

      Well, we use “alcoholic” for someone addicted to alcohol, how about cocaineic, heroinic, oxycontinic, etc. for those addicted to other substances?

  • Jean Valjean

    Certain words are frequently taken up by power elites (media, the wealthy, law enforcement, politicians) and used for propaganda purposes and to create a scapegoated Out Group. Historically these words include Jew, addict, various abusive terms for gays, immigrants “illegals,” etc. Sometimes the best policy for those offended by these terms or shamed by them is to re-appropriate the word, as has been done with the N word and queer. I tend to use the word addiction to describe my own period of dependency on opiates, without which I could not move from my bed over a 13 year period. I suggest that my usage of the word is rather different from the way Michele Leonhart or the Daily Mail (not to mention the reception officer at Brixton prison who cheerfully told me he would hang all addicts if he could) might use it because it is first hand experience and is not an attempt at stigmatization.