Thursday, April 21, 2011

Is Addiction Always Bad?

Here's an article about a new book on the physiological process of addiction, THE COMPASS OF PLEASURE, by a neuroscientist from Johns Hopkins University:

Defining Addiction

I've always found it irritating when people casually toss around the word "addiction" for any habitual behavior they enjoy to excess. If there's no chemical substance being introduced into the body, I think "compulsive" makes more sense than "addictive." Turns out that the scientific criterion for addiction "is defined by the changes that certain activities can make in the brain." Any activities that "short-circuit the medial forebrain pleasure circuit," from taking drugs to compulsive gambling or shopping, fit that definition. So, okay, I guess I have to accept that addiction is a broader category than I used to believe, even if the popular overuse of the terminology annoys me. Some non-chemical stimuli really do hijack the dopamine (pleasure chemical) processing circuits in the brain to produce a "super-potent experience." The brain gets rewired to respond to certain associations with cravings. Some surprising facts:

The majority of people who engage in pleasurable, habit-forming activities don't get physiologically addicted, even those who sample a powerful drug such as heroine once or twice.

Addicts don't get more pleasure from their drug of choice than average people do; they get less. Because of the effect of repeated abuse on the neurons, addicts need constantly higher doses to get the same effect. (Which is one reason I don't drink coffee every day, quite aside from the downside of the diuretic and laxative effects. If I consumed as much of the stuff as dedicated coffee lovers do, I would no longer receive the illusion of a burst of energy from a single cup or one frappuccino.)

Not everything often called "addictive" really is. Alcohol, nicotine, fat and sweet foods, exercise, shopping, gambling, and sex can be; meditation may be. Marijuana and video games aren't.

That list brings up the question of whether addiction can be a good thing. Exercise (if not taken to the point of physical injury) and meditation are good for us. Within a committed, loving relationship, sex is good for us (strengthens emotional bonds, provides exercise, has other physical benefits). I can't see how, in most people's lives, there could be "too much" meditative prayer or loving sex. I've come across comments by alcoholism counselors that there's no cure for an addictive personality; someone whose brain is wired that way generally substitutes one addiction for another—replacing drugs with marathons, for example. But doesn't it make a difference whether the compulsive behavior is harmful or beneficial? If one can't escape "addiction," surely it's better to be a workaholic or exercise-holic than a chain smoker or compulsive gambler. Some people might consider Isaac Asimov addicted to writing. He did it all day, every day, and he wouldn't go on a vacation without taking his work along. Yet even if that behavior signified an addiction, he was apparently happily well-adjusted to his condition, and millions of readers have benefited.

My father once labeled me "addicted to reading" (and he was a book lover himself, not one of those odd folks who dismiss reading as a waste of time), and he had a point, in that I never go anywhere without a book, and if more than a day goes by when I'm too busy for periods of sustained reading, I feel "withdrawal" symptoms. If I weren't a bookaholic, though, I would never have become a writer, and that's an experience I wouldn't want to have missed. For that matter, I suspect writing itself is something of an addictive behavior for me. Although I enjoy the preparation (outlining) and the byproducts (published books and their royalties), I don't usually enjoy the act of writing itself. I feel compelled to do it, though, and if I'm prevented for too long a stretch, I get depressed and irritable.

My fictional vampires, if they feed too often on a single donor, become addicted to that person and can't bear to drink from anyone else. (They get their bulk nourishment from animal blood, so they are not draining their chosen donor.) I frame this outcome as a good thing, though (if the partnership is carefully chosen), because the mutual dependency creates a deep emotional bond, far more satisfying than preying on anonymous victims. Nature actually intends a vampire to bond with a single donor, and those who feed randomly can't get the full satisfaction the experience was meant to provide.

Likewise, in real life, I'd view some "addictions" as benign reinforcements of pleasurable bonds, such as the "addiction" to sex with one's mate.

As Obi-Wan Kenobi says, sometimes it's all in one's point of view.

Margaret L. Carter
Carter's Crypt

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