The Neuroscience of Addiction

Often sadness is considered the opposite of joy.  I believe addiction is in many ways the opposite of joy largely because of how it functions neurologically.  Joy is reward in itself, but its opposite is truly opposite: Addiction craves external rewards and numbs us to the joy of actually experiencing them.  Addiction is not reward in itself.  It does not provide either love or creativity.  The thrill comes from the chase.  It is a hedonic treadmill.  Addiction is defined by abuse, dependence, and pathological craving.

The neurochemical, dopamine is at the heart of the reward system.  Healthy levels of dopamine will help us with motivation and in the pursuit of desires.  It is vitally important to us.  Dopamine is released from the nucleus accumbens and ventral tegmentum area.  In the frontal cortex it will help us work toward our desired goals.  It will also help with decision making.  Dopamine will help us feel rewarded in our pursuit of meaning and purpose.

But if the meaning and purpose we find in life is hurtful to others or found through addiction, then the dopamine circuit gets turned toward the negative.  Studies have shown that elevated levels of dopamine do not make people more content.  Rather they get geared up for wanting more.  They become addicts.  If you have not personally suffered from addiction it is almost certain that you know someone who does or has suffered.

Addiction can be for substances such as alcohol as well as behaviors.  Behaviors can range from food, pornography, video games, gambling to shopping addiction.  It can be for many things.  Much of our sensationalized traumatic news can fit into the category of addiction.  We could also include the violence we see on television and in video games.  The increased prevalence and entertainment of violence has been labeled by some as the pornography of violence.

Common to various types of addiction is the hijacking of the reward system.  Numbing of the reward, tolerance, a large release of dopamine, and a weakened prefrontal cortex inhibitory response are all features of addiction and the hijack of our reward system.  When we suffer from addiction, the reward actually becomes less appealing over time.  Addicts need a bigger risk and reward to maintain a sense of desire and stimulation.  Addiction is much more than a pleasurable diversion.  In addiction there is an inability to stop.  Addiction is destructive to our lives and relationships.

When our dopamine system is out of control, it is more like scratching an itch rather than medicine for a wound.  Many of our desires are very basic, such as for food or for procreation.  Advertisers know to play on these desires. Advertisers also play on our fears, pride, and feelings of in-group and out-group.  They often try to create our desires for us.  Cues are a large part of addiction.  Shiny, fast, and big are just a few that we could name. When our goals get manipulated, then we can become addicts.  Elevated dopamine will drive us toward craving.

Some of the most addictive substances, like cocaine or methamphetamine ramp up the effect of dopamine.  The problem is that these systems of ramping up get so out of whack that they need more and more of the drug to produce the desired effect.  Much of our society is stuck in cycles of addiction: release, fear, guilt, tension, release, fear, guilt, tension.  The dopamine reward circuit must not get hijacked by fear.

Society can train people to fear rejection by telling them that they are part of an out-group.  They are told that they need the reward of being accepted or of being part of the in-group.  In school this could be the pressure to wear certain clothes, to act a certain way or to think like others.  Thus, the cycle of addiction is born.  What is so tragic is that it is often unconscious.  We do things often because we are told or taught them by others.  Often others tell us or teach us without knowing they are teaching or telling us.  And many of us have a genetic predisposition toward addiction as well.

Our possessions can come to possess us.  Our striving to get things only leaves us with the fear of them being taken away.  It might also leave us suspicious of others.  Research has shown that lottery winners are actually less content than before they won.  With more stresses, people vying for their money, and poor decision making, often lottery winners will confess being happier before the winnings.  Also, some of the most “successful” people are often those with a Type A personality.  The Type A personality is defined by constant striving, impatience and competitiveness.  Another term for describing the Type A personality is joyless striving.  Those who have the most sometimes can’t appreciate any of what they have because they are so possessed by wanting more.  Another psychological term for the disease of not being able to appreciate overabundance is affluenza.

One might argue that many have become addicted to hate.  Does it not sometimes seem that there is abuse, dependence, and pathological craving toward hating people of opposing political parties?  Perhaps even more troubling is our country’s addiction to debt.  At $23 Trillion and climbing, there still seems almost unanimous consensus amongst politicians to ignore the problem.  Not recognizing our problems is also a key feature of addiction.  Our children and grandchildren are shackled to the sins of today.  What legacy are we going to leave them?  And what will they think of us when they reach adulthood?