Cognitive neuroscience and discoveries in addiction
The latest research in the neuroscience of addiction
David Linden’s book, “The Compass of Pleasure” is a MUST for understanding recent findings in the study of neuroscience and addiction. I hope that you go out and buy the book. I’ll present a few reasons why here, and then review some of the key points and questions that the book provoked during my reading.
For one, I recommend this book to anyone interested in understanding addiction because Dr. Linden is a nerd. He presents the raw science behind brain function with the amicable voice of a true dork, and it’s clear that he knows what he’s talking about, and loves what he does. Second, there’s something for everyone. Dr. Linden reviews types of addiction by chapter to go deeper into the science and research of each. And with over 150 references in the annotations, it’s clear that he’s been thorough. And three, his insightful direction help readers find similarities across many types of addictions, bringing a distinct sense of unity to the text, as we discover what motivates us to seek, find, and repeat pleasurable experiences.
Here are some of the key points that I took from the cognitive neuroscience research presented in the book.
1. Humans have historically tried to control pleasure through law, religion, and society.
2. The medial fore brain pleasure circuit in the brain is responsible for pleasure.
When the neurons of the ventral tegmental area of the brain are active and release dopamine to other parts of the brain… the experiences as well as the sensory cues and actions that preceded them will be associated with positive feelings.
3. Pleasure can be triggered by many different experiences.
Activities, experiences and behaviors that active the dopamine neurons of the ventral tegmental area are wide-ranged. Exercising, taking drugs, eating, having sex, and even giving to charity can cause pleasure in the brain. But some chemicals, routes of administration and frequency of use make certain substances more addictive than others.
4. Active addiction is not pleasant or fun.
Addicts don’t like their drug of choice more than other people might; they need it and crave it. Although drug use may initially motivated by pleasure, euphoric effect lessens after chronic use.
5. Addicts are responsible for self-care after diagnosis.
The development of addiction is a combination of genetic (and environmental) factors. How do people become addicts? Some people are more prone to become addicts both physically and mentally than others. But, just because addiction is a “disease” does not meant that addicts are not responsible for treating it. While addicts may not be responsible for the development of addiction, they are responsible for recovery from it.
6. The brain can be re-wired after addiction via experience.
Addiction actually alters the function and the structure of the pleasure circuit of the brain. But these learned behaviors can be altered with experience. So even if our genes and neurons are programmed for addictive behavior, we can re-write the code.
In sum, what I’ve taken from this book is that the practice and study of neuroscience is just beginning. New treatments, ideas and therapies for addiction that address genetic variations in the brain may come in the coming years. But barring this, cognitive control is crucial for the addict in recovery. Abstinence is necessary before you begin the long process of making structural changes to the neurons in the brain which we altered after repeated drug use. Our brains are flexible, and new behaviors and choices are the way out of addiction.
Photo credit: Rebecca-Lee