What is addiction? Who gets addicted and why? What makes an addicted person different? What makes a person less addicted?
How are we going to solve the problem at a personal level? And how are we going to solve the problem on a national level?
These are all relevant questions to raise, and yet there are no definitive answers and no solutions seem effective. It is not a new problem. It is not a small problem. And it is not a problem that seems to go away if we just ignore it. And yet we don’t really seem to have any plan of action, no solution in sight and no real understanding of the core of the problem. This would all suggest that our understanding of addiction is not very good. So this is the starting point for this series: An attempt to have a second look at addiction. First, the traditional ways of understanding addiction and later some alternative views based on the latest science.
So the starting point for this is that our common understanding of addiction is not very good. Or rather that it is so bad that it is time to scrap most of it and start all over. Most people know that their understanding of addiction is incomplete. And some people know that a lot of what is “common wisdom” about addiction is actually not correct. However only very few people have access to the information that is necessary for a better and more accurate understanding of addiction.
Because of this it is not clear to most people how distorted the common views on addiction are. So most people feel that their understanding of drugs and addiction is incomplete and a bit too vague. Not very many have any sense of how far they are from a real understanding of how drugs work and why people get addicted. That is partly because the normal views on addiction are deliberately misguided. Meaning that your thinking is probably informed by lack of information, some misunderstandings, a great deal for misinformation & a few outright lies.
This misinformation is a toxic cocktail of junk-science, misleading language and an insistence on repeating old “truth” that has now been shown to be wrong. It is also supported by a massive interest in upholding a narrative around use of drugs and addiction to drugs that supports a variety of ways to profit from addiction and from addicted people.
So first on our to-do list is this:
We need to cut through the crap and get to a real understanding of addiction.
We need to see it for what it is in order to deal with the problem.
We need to build an understanding that is informed by solid science.
We need to make use of that understanding in the ways that we deal with addiction as we take steps towards solving the problem.
The first step towards this is to take the right perspective on addiction, what addiction is and what is wrong with addicts. The right perspective is that the problem in addiction is this: The state and function of your ability to course correct is not good enough for your situation!
This is not something new or really different, but something that is not sufficiently at the center of attention. Let me repeat: The state and function of your ability to course correct. That is your ability to make changes to your behavior, based on both your basic brain equipment and your training in using it and your motivation to do so. This is a bit like looking at hardware and software for some function – you need both to be effective to get the results that you want. So, the state of your equipment would be wet-ware or the physiological side of things. We would look at how much energy you have, if there any physiological problems that limit your self-control and how well would you do when you are at your best.
The other side of this, the software side, is about how informed you are in they way that you manage yourself? Do you waste your energy, do you have good health behaviors that support good self-control? Are you habits well suited to the daily challenges that eat up the bulk of your energy. Both of these perspectives goes into “the state and function” of your self-control. That is, your ability to sense that your behavior is getting you into trouble and then take a different course of action. This should be the focus of dealing with any kind of addiction and really any need for behavioral change.
The problem is usually not to sense that what you do is questionable. Most of us can do that very reliable. The weak link in this is actually changing our course of action. To do so require self-control, it relies on our prefrontal cortex and the prefrontal cortex is the weak link in this ability. We often fail when it would be in our own best interest to take a different path. And we fail in this way, even if we do have a clear idea that we are headed down the wrong path.
So the function of the prefrontal cortex is crucial for understanding addiction. In the coming sections we are going to lay out the way that the PFC is useful and how it hurts you when your PFC is not working as intended.