Brain Health,

#154: Rethinking Addiction With Maia Szalavitz

November 11, 2016

Are addicts just greedy, selfish people who want more pleasure than everyone else?  Can babies be born addicted to drugs?  What role has race played in the criminalization of some mood-altering substances but not others?

Jesse talks about the answers to all these questions with Maia Szalavitz, author of the new book Unbroken Brain:  A Revolutionary New Way of Understanding Addiction.  Get ready to question your old beliefs about addiction.

What is Addiction?

Addiction is defined in the DSM V and by the American National Institute on Drug Abuse as essentially being compulsive drug use that continues despite negative consequences.  There’s a problem with learning — people aren’t learning from punishment.

Addiction is not the same as physical dependence.  Physical dependence occurs when your body needs a substance to function normally.  Addiction requires a learned behavior and negative consequences.

If they were the same thing, that would mean cocaine wasn’t addictive, since it doesn’t cause physical withdrawals when people stop taking it.  That’s why babies are not born “addicted” to drugs; they have no idea what drugs even are, only that their body has become physically dependent on them in utero.

A Predisposition to Addiction?

One of the most interesting takeaways from Szalavitz’s book is that certain behaviors in early childhood are correlated with increased risk of addiction later in life. These precursors to addiction are generally displayed in children’s temperaments.

Strangely, two opposite and extreme temperaments will often both correlate to a higher potential for substance abuse. For example, children who seek intense stimulation and children who are easily overwhelmed by sensory input are both more likely to become addicts.  Although, as stands to reason, their drugs of choice will probably differ — stimulants for the stimulation-seekers and depressants for the overwhelmed.

Misconceptions About Addicts and Addiction

We all know the stereotype of the lying, stealing addict.  And although people with antisocial personality disorder are more likely to become addicts, most addicts are not sociopaths.  They just lie to cover up something shameful in the same way people having affairs do.

Addicts are not selfish pleasure-seekers either.  They actually tend to be people who have less pleasure in their lives than is typical (for example, suffering from depression, or having been abused) and are just trying to feel baseline OK.

How to Combat Addiction

Look, there is no magic pill to prevent addiction.  And, in fact, at least some part of addiction is a social construct.  A person may use exercise or work to self-medicate, but because we’ve decided as a society that these are acceptive outlets, there are few negative consequences for overindulging.

A first step would be to take a much stronger stance in schools against bullying.  When teachers and other adults have a zero-tolerance policy towards bullying, less bullying happens.  And researchers are increasingly finding that bullying in childhood does a lot of psychological damage that is long-lasting.

Being bullied can take a child who was predisposed to depression and trigger severe depression.  This trauma leads to an increased risk of addiction later in life.

We should also work to support tolerance of diversity in schools.  The more kids are allowed to be outliers, the less likely they will be bullied, and the less psychological damage they’ll face.  Although this isn’t to say that children should be treated with kid gloves.  Manageable doses of stress are important for learning.

PS:  You should sign up for our weekly newsletter — it’s addicting. 😉

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  1. ben says:

    This reminded me of a great episode of Radiolab entitled “The Fix”. In it, they talk about differences between how the West and East (Russia) view addiction. In the U.S. for example, we see it as just needing to admit the problem, going to meetings, talking about it, etc. In Russia (as Yakov Smirnoff would say), they use a pill that is thought to kill you when alcohol is consumed, thus scaring you to never drink again!

    Regarding the RLRG, there is an interesting documentary on youtube called “Cane Toads The Conquest’ about when the hallucinogen Colorado River (Sonoran Desert) toads where introduced in Australia and quickly took over the country. Anyways, at the 58m46s mark they showcase how some dogs apparently like to lick the toads to take a quick DMT / bufoteninthe trip!

    1. Jesse Lawler says:

      Thanks for the tip, Ben. Here’s the link to that YouTube video, by the way, for anyone else inclined to check it out. 🙂

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