“How Addiction Works”
Copyright (C) 2010, William E. Webb
Addiction occurs in the “primitive brain” that evolved long before the relatively recent development of the cerebral cortex and its ability to reason. These parts of the brain are not amenable to coercion, logic, willpower, or thinking problems away. They are the parts that control the functions below the level of thought — in a sense, below even the subconscious.
These are the parts of the brain that control our breathing, heartbeat, and other bodily functions, the parts where we feel pleasure, pain, hunger, and basic emotions such as fear, anger and lust. They communicate with our cerebral cortex, where we carry out the activities that we call thinking, and we are then able to respond to them in complex ways. However, while our “thinking brain” is able to influence the primitive portions of the brain to a certain degree, it can’t tell it what to do. And, unfortunately for us addicts, it can’t control the messages sent to other parts of the body. We are able to ignore those messages, to a degree, but we can’t turn them off.
In the human body, survival issues speak with an extremely loud voice, and can, in most cases, easily overpower the wiser counsel of our cerebral cortex. People with normal reflexes can’t not jump when they hear a sudden loud noise, and that’s a good thing. Imagine a situation where, on hearing a noise in the jungle, we had to consider all the possibilities: wind in the trees, small animal I can eat, piece of fruit falling, another person, unknown cause, or maybe a big creature that wants to eat me. People who wasted time with all that thinking wouldn’t have many kids. Most wouldn’t even make it to adulthood, and so they wouldn’t pass that particular tendency along to their descendants.
So, our bodies heed the primitive brain in survival situations, and we run, jump to the side, or stand perfectly still until the cause of the noise has become more apparent. Then our thinking brain comes into play, and we decide whether to continue or to go back and display to our kid brother, the trickster, the anger that is a normal response to being scared out of our wits.
The powerful survival signals from our primitive brains have an important purpose, but they can cause problems. For example, when we use drugs, including alcohol, long-term changes take place in our brains. The primitive brain develops an actual need for the drugs, and interprets their absence as a survival issue like hunger, thirst, and our “fight or flight” reflexes. Because of the force of these urges, which can easily overpower our reason and common sense, we tend to ignore the messages of our thinking brain, and seek more drugs. The more used to the drugs we become, the more difficult to think our way out of the box we’ve built for ourselves. We are addicts.
Much of the recovery from addiction and the odd behaviors and impulses that it entails take place on the sub-cortical level. We recover by taking good care of ourselves, both psychologically and physically, and allowing the brain to recover slowly on its own. Until it does — until it recovers to the point that it stops sending us those signals that it needs the drugs for its survival — we have to watch our step. The bare fact of the matter is this: for an addict, using is more natural, more in keeping with the immediate needs of the survival brain, than not using. If we are not vigilant, in times of stress we may heed the primitive brain rather than the rational brain, and things go rapidly downhill from there.