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We Are All ‘Wired’ for Addiction, Study Finds
When the movie “Flight” was released in 2012, I went to see it with a friend who is also a recovering alcoholic. There’s a scene where the main character, Whip Whitaker, who has struggled to stay sober, goes on a drinking binge (I’m not giving anything away, I promise). As he drinks all the booze he can get his hands on, the audience was audibly dismayed. Angry whispers of “what is he doing?” and “why is he doing that?” echoed through the theater. Although there was nothing amusing about what was happening onscreen, my friend and I exchanged a small, sad smile. We knew exactly what he was doing: being an alcoholic.
To someone who hasn’t personally been addicted, the behavior of active addicts is utterly baffling. It’s erratic, dangerous and often goes against the best interest of the addict. It’s difficult for someone unfamiliar with addiction to understand the behavior of an addicted person. Understanding how addiction manifests, however, is vitally important for addicts and non-addicts alike. A new study offers insight into how “non-addicts” might not be as different from addicts as they think, and, more important, how the similarity between addicted and non-addicted brains might foster a more compassionate attitude toward addicts..
The August 2016 study by psychology professor Brian Anderson, “What Is Abnormal About Addiction-Related Attentional Biases?” appears in the journal Drug and Alcohol Dependence. The research examines how the reward process in the brain that’s responsible for much of the neurobiological component of addiction functions similarly in addicts and non-addicts alike. A specialist in cognitive neuroscience, Anderson wanted to examine “attentional bias,” the “tendency to direct your attention to something even when it conflicts with your goals, making it difficult to ignore,” which plays a significant role in addiction. It’s also, he argues, something that happens in the brains of non-addicted people as well.
When addicts see something known as a “drug cue,” stimuli that the addicted person associates with the use of a drug, their reward system is triggered, making them focus their attention or “attentional bias” on the stimulus. A drug cue could be a minibar in a hotel room or a bong — anything an addict strongly associates with using (and thus the brain associates with the reward system being triggered). Anderson theorized that showing an attentional bias for learned predictors of reward is not something that’s specific to addicts. He believes that all of our brains are wired similarly.
To test his theory, Anderson first asked subjects to perform a task in which they were rewarded with money for finding simple colored objects. The subjects were then asked to perform a similar task except they would no longer be rewarded for finding the colored objects.
The Power of Reward
Anderson found that previously reward-associated objects drew attention and influenced behavior in the same ways that drug cues do in drug-addicted patients. “That is, the attentional biases were evident even when they conflicted with current goals, they lasted a long time, they were mediated by many of the same brain regions, and they facilitated action toward the stimulus,” he explained. While drug cues for addicted people facilitate much stronger attentional bias, it’s significant that the same process happens in non-addicted brains. Anderson’s findings illustrate that addicted brains are not fundamentally different from non-addicted brains. The process that’s happening when, for example, Whip Whitaker is unable to stop himself from going on a bender, is an extreme version of a normal cognitive behavior.
The implication of these findings, Anderson says, is humbling. It’s a reminder that those of us who don’t suffer from addiction have the same neurological foundation as those who do. Says Anderson: “I think this is important to keep in mind when we try to make sense of why we and others we know do the things we do. Where we look and what we pursue are not always a reflection of our current conscious intentions. Rather, automatic biases are a normal part of life that we need to either consciously work against or replace with healthier habits when the ones we have led to bad outcomes.” In other words, when an addict is unable to stop himself from using, the same forces are at work in the brain when a non-addict has trouble with a different, less damaging behavior. The forces at work may not be as strong in the non-addict, nor the consequences as harmful, but the brain is operating similarly in each case.
Perhaps the takeaway from Anderson’s findings is one of compassion. As the saying goes, “He that is without sin among you, let him cast the first stone.” The behavior active addicts exhibit is often deeply troubling. But when we ask ourselves, as those moviegoers in “Flight” did, “why is he doing this?” “Why can’t he stop?” it may be useful to remember that our brains are powerful. What makes a person reach for a second donut when they are trying to stay away from sugar is, in some ways, a less extreme version of what an addict does when they reach for their substance of choice. It’s easiest for the brain to stick to old habits. In addiction treatment, new habits have to be learned. That’s a challenging process for anyone, especially addicts. Hopefully Anderson’s study can offer the world a little more understanding about what we all have in common with those suffering from addiction.