I’m an alcoholic. I chose not to continue dying. So I learned about the neurophysiology of addiction. It works like this:
Imagine a river. It is a strong running river, the current rippling the surface and throbbing beneath. It travels in a long straight line through the forest. The banks of the old river rise to a crest of dry soil on either side.
It rains. In the rain coming down the river swells up. Up and up, the rippling surface of the flowing water rises. The river climbs its banks.
Along one side of the river, the water finds a groove in the soil. It touches the groove, gingerly at first, feeling it. Choosing more. The flow reaches out past the bank, a finger of water reaching up and curling over the edge.
Water rushes, following up and over. The finger reaches further. It discovers a shallow trough in the soil. It fills the trough, picking grains of soil from the bottom and churning the grains outward as it flows. The water swells further. Rising. Brimming. It shoots forward.
The rivulet sprints towards the treeline on the bank of the river.
This is how a brain grows and develops. Our brains are a growing pattern of electrochemical flow, similar in structure to other patterns of this growing universe. Like the arms of a tree sprout forth from the thick trunk body, and smaller branches sprout forth from those, our neurophysiology blossoms forth. We grow and learn, associate and change through experience and imagination and choice. As arteries sprout arterioles, which sprout capillaries, or nerves sprout forth from the spinal cord – there is expansion and connection and flow.
The mind, seen as a physical thing, is the river of the brain seeking the sea of experience.
All wanting may be seen to move in this way. A swell of dopamine, a reach outward, the feeling of current and flow as we strive and connect.
Addiction may be seen this way as well. Water finds low places.
Dopamine is the rain, the elixir of both want and pleasure, connecting our desires and our actions. It has done this for millions of years, in the brain of anything more complex than a lizard. The primal desires we share with mammals are the ancient depths of the river, carrying our want toward lands of animal satisfaction.
As humans, we may associate anything with anything else – so our imaginary satisfactions may be as simple as a hug or as abstract as a smileyfaced text message. As we want and seek and experience, the brain forms associations, and carries our want into new realms.
We find ourselves flowing toward places of creation, production and achievement in life.
We find ourselves carried, over and over, into dark realms of addiction.
Addiction happens when the deep channels of mammalian want, rivers with channels carved deep through the neurophysiology of newborn infants, become connected to behaviors that do not ultimately enhance our survival.
The brain begins with key evolutionary triggers, telling us what to seek out in our environment. Calories. After that, with our big human brains of association and imagination, things get wonky.
The man smelling the doughnuts in the cubicle beside his, and struggling not to grab one, disagrees with his own brain about what constitutes “maximized probability of survival.”
In our free will, in our choice, we connect our rushing primal desires to new experiences we imagine. Such abstractions have allowed mankind to invent wheels to protect our precious bodily storehouses of calories, and to imagine that somehow putting seeds in the ground now means sweet corn later. The myriad of absurd connections available in our minds is responsible for progress, art, and folly.
Our imaginations may be singular, but the drives onto which imagination and association are tied, are universal.
The fresh brain of an infant knows “sweet.” His face relaxes and registers pleasure when a sucrose-dipped pacifier is placed in his mouth by a doctor. A first association between primal desire and sensory information is formed, and that baby might just like pacifiers or dangling stethoscopes and white smocks forever after. A torrent of dopamine came down with that first hit of sugar, the banks of the river swelled and pushed into new associations.
Later, that baby discovers what candy is. Candy asks us for very little imaginative abstraction – it is an immediate and simple push of our most basic motivating button. The sense of sweetness in the mouth indicates the presence of easy glucose in the bloodstream, a distilled rocketfuel for the human brain. It’s a short trip between the rushing river of Calorie Intake and the lowland of Snickers and Wonderbread. We’re all born with a nascent sugar habit, and it doesn’t take many Halloweens for it to develop into a lifelong addiction.
Later, that grown baby drinks his first beer. New associations are formed. The first sip might come as a branch from the river of Social Connection. As his buddy hands him a can and looks on expectantly, that grown baby reaches out for new experience.
We’d like to be productive achievers. Wanting “good” things. Brimming with associations between survival and stuff like “helping others” or “making money” or some sort of noble activity. Something nobler than passing out on other people’s couches. Some of us make productive associations early on, getting good grades and hugs and collaboration, riding a whitewater of psychosocial development headed straight toward “the good life.”
The rivers of motivation that flow to such behaviors, may just as easily flow elsewhere.
Habit is when our primal rivers find their way through new ground, and begin to flow stronger through the associated territory with repeated action. The soil is moved, and the new habits become deeper, taking more and more of the rainfall.
Addiction is when we cannot seem to stop the flow, and we get carried away in the current.
Alcohol. Soda. Pornography. Whatever floats your boat. The first time you tried it, whatever your addiction happens to be, it was you that curled a finger over the riverbank. It was you that branched the flow of a primal river into fresh territory of sensation. The soil took new form as the current spread it, the neurophysiology of your brain changed, and your associations made a path for dopamine to travel between your limbic system and…
Something new. Whatever it was. Behavior and sensation that is, perhaps, not so survival-enhancing.
All addiction is wanting run amok.
The rain stops and comes again. Easily finding its groove and reaching outward once more. The finger reaching becomes an arm, reaching further into the forest. The rain continues and the bank of the river is now cut, the soil, once a barrier, now welcomes the water through the forest.
The once-rivulet is now a brook. The rain continues and the brook stretches. It reaches further and further. The torrent goes on. The brook is now a stream. The arm of the stream rushes, the fingers trickle further and further out.
The stream rushes and reaches. Finding its way further and further, reaching for the sea.