Addiction is not a moral failing. Rather, it’s a neurochemical response, habituated and modified over time by repetitive use of an addictive substance or behavior. Put very simply, the human brain reacts to certain substances and activities in ways that create the sensation of pleasure. Later, we remember the pleasure that we experienced, and we attempt to recreate that feeling by repeating whatever it is that we did the last time. If we do this often enough, we can become addicted.
More technically, a small portion of the brain, the nucleus accumbens, which is commonly referred to as “the rewards center” or “the pleasure center,” is automatically activated in response to life-affirming stimuli like eating, being sexual, socializing, and the like. These behaviors are “rewarded” in this way because they ensure survival of the individual and/or the species. (If we don’t eat, we die; if we don’t have sex, we don’t reproduce; if we’re not social, we don’t work together and we’re more vulnerable to predators; etc.) This is intelligent design at its finest.
For the most part, this rewards response involves the release and reception of certain neurochemicals – primarily dopamine, but also adrenaline, serotonin, oxytocin, and a few others. Some brain cells release these neurochemicals; other brain cells receive them; and both halves of the process – release and reception – need to occur before we feel pleasure. In other words, dopamine and the various other neurochemical pleasure juices don’t activate the rewards center simply because they’re floating around in the brain. They must also “plug in” to their respective receptors. (It’s like a lamp. It doesn’t work until you plug it in, thereby completely the electrical circuit.)
Equally important is the fact that the various regions of the brain communicate almost constantly with other regions. For instance, when the rewards center is activated, it sends a message to several of its neighbors – in particular the parts of the brain that handle things like mood, memory, and decision-making. Essentially, the rewards center calls up its friends and says, “Wow, cheeseburgers are awesome. Let’s remember that, so the next time we feel hungry we’ll know what to do.”
Unfortunately, the rewards center responds to more than just life-sustaining stimuli. For instance, alcohol, addictive drugs, and intensely exciting behaviors (gambling, spending, consuming empty calories, etc.) also cause the release of pleasurable neurochemicals. In fact, these substances and activities tend to artificially overstimulate the system, flooding the brain with two to ten times the normal amount of pleasure-inducing neurochemicals. Needless to say, that’s a pretty big blast of pleasure. And of course, the rewards center is eager to share this information with its mood, memory, and decision-making neighbors.
Is it any wonder that we sometimes want more, more, and still more?
Exacerbating matters is the fact that the brain monitors itself and adapts (i.e., heals) based on its experience. For instance, in cases of addiction, the brain realizes that the rewards center is being hyper-stimulated, and it adjusts to that by reducing the amount of dopamine and other pleasure-inducing neurochemicals it releases and/or the number of receptors that can receive these pleasure juices. Because of this, addictive substances and activities become less effective over time. This, of course, is why addictions escalate, with addicts using more of an addictive substance/behavior or a more intense substance/behavior (in an effort to create the neurochemical rush they experienced when they first started using). Eventually, the brain adjusts to the point where addicts find themselves using not to get high, but to get normal. This is known as “feeding the beast.”
Despite this loss of enjoyment, other areas of the brain – in particular the mood, memory, and decision making centers – remember how much fun it is to use an addictive substance or behavior. (The initial experience with anything tends to imprint very strongly, and to control how we think and feel about that experience for a very long time.) Because of this, our brains encourage us to keep using even when we no longer enjoy it. In other words, addictive substances and behaviors no longer lead to pleasure, yet we still engage with them compulsively because that’s what our brains tell us to do.
So, like it or not, our brains are constructed in ways that cause the addictive merry-go-round to spin, spin, and endlessly spin some more. Even though we no longer enjoy what we are doing (because our rewards center has adjusted to the constant overstimulation), the mood, memory, and decision-making parts of the brain tell us to continue using. In essence, we go from liking an addictive substance or behavior to needing it. We feed the beast.