A Sudden Thoughtlessness
Yesterday I described the experience of an addict desperately wanting to stop his addiction yet finding himself diving headlong into it even so. The addict knows perfectly well that he has the physical capability to put away the needle, close the laptop, skip the dessert line, or walk past the pub, and he knows he has all the reasons in the world to do exactly that…but he just doesn’t. In the moments of anticipation, the addict remains convinced that things will be different this time. In the moment of action, though, he is proved wrong again.
How could this happen?
Most addicts throw their hands up in exasperation. They have absolutely no clue! They would love to know the answer to that question themselves! It makes just as little sense to them as it does to everyone else. In fact, it makes even less sense, because they know better than anyone that their resolve was real and true just an hour ago! They, more than anyone, know just how far they fell and how quickly.
How could you choose to do this?
The addict insists that they didn’t. But then they admit that obviously they did. Again, it makes no sense to them. They thought they had already made their choice: they would never do this thing again. But then the choice was undone, and seemingly without their permission. But how can they say it wasn’t by their permission? Whose else would it have been?
What were you thinking?
Here the addict might blink their eyes blankly. Honestly, now that they think about it, they really weren’t thinking about anything at all. At the moment they didn’t consider why they were giving in to the temptation or if they should do so…they just went ahead without any reasoning or thought process at all. Or in some cases, it might have briefly occurred to them that they had all manner of reasons not to give in, but all those thoughts felt dull and meaningless and were quickly ushered offstage.
And this is the experience that seems most puzzling, because beforehand the addict had created an airtight argument against the addiction, a series of facts and principles meant to convince himself to stay away from his vice forever. But that depth of logic and reason had abandoned him when it came to make his case. In the moment of decision, it had felt like his rational, reasonable self was addressing a brain-dead jury. Where did the addict’s mind go at the time when it mattered most?
This question might seem an aggravation to the addict, but it is actually a wonderful thing to settle upon, for this is the key to understanding the true nature of his addiction. This phenomenon is so consistent in the addict, and so prevalent across all addicts, that there really must be a reason behind it.
Playing Without a Full Deck)
Thankfully, researchers picked up on this pattern and they dedicated themselves to getting to the bottom of it. Through a series of studies, they found the answer. What they uncovered was that our addictions do not only cause emotional and spiritual damage to ourselves, but they also have a clear and measurable effect upon our very brains. The brain of the addict has been shown to have drastically reduced activity in the prefrontal cortex, as if it had been severely injured.
If you’ve never heard of this fact before, feel free to do a quick web search for “addiction and the prefrontal cortex.” You will find all manner of scientific papers on the subject, such as this one.
The idea that the brain of the addict would be different from that of a sober person might be quite alarming. Most addicts don’t feel like their minds are working differently, but the science is clear. The brain scan of a sober person is completely different from that of the addict.
And to be clear, this phenomenon of different mental activity is not limited to addicts who have been using brain-altering drugs. The research has found that even when the compulsive behavior introduces no foreign chemicals whatsoever, such as the habitual viewing of pornography, there is still a decisive erosion of the prefrontal cortex. The implication seems to be that it is the act of living our addiction itself that causes the damage to this part of the brain.
And just what is the prefrontal cortex used for? Well, it is the region of the brain from which comes all of our higher reasoning. It is what provides our rational, calculated thinking, so we don’t just operate from pure instinct and reflex. It is what allows us to set goals and sharpen our focus.
To have a damaged prefrontal cortex means to lose one’s ability to apply reasoning over appetite. It means to give up deliberate decision-making and revert instead to habitual instinct. It means to be highly susceptible to suggestion. It means to have very little mental strength in the face of great desire.
The addict is caught in a vicious cycle. Back in his past, probably long before he felt that his behavior was a real problem, he engaged in practices that eroded the part of his brain necessary for higher reasoning. By the time he became aware that he had a problem, his ability to turn down the temptation had already been severely stripped down, leading him to act out again, which only eroded his higher reasoning still further. He is caught in a downward spiral of having less and less control over his choices.
The addict is playing a game of poker, but with only half the cards he is supposed to, and in every round the addiction will call his bluff.
Is There Any Hope?)
This may sound like a terminal diagnosis. How can one exercise “mind over matter” when the physical matter of the mind has been damaged? Does this mean that the addict is doomed to a life of acting out?
Well, no. Happily, the research has also shown that the damage to the prefrontal cortex is not total, meaning it has not progressed in the addict to the point that he literally cannot make his own choices at all. Also, the research has shown that the damage is not permanent, meaning that once the addict’s brain has been stunted it does not necessarily have to remain so.
But how can the addict strengthen and repair his mind? We’ll dive into those questions tomorrow, detailing exactly what the addict needs to do to get the desired healing. I’ll see you next time as we explore these subjects.