This is my first excerpt from Chapter Two, “How We Learn Addiction.” It’s an introduction to the concept of neuroplasticity, and discusses why I chose to use this concept to explain not only the process of addiction, but also the process of recovery.
Nearly every recovery self-help book explains the mechanism of addiction, if they address it at all, by discussing the chemical changes that take place in the brain during the various phases of the addiction process, some of which are irreversible. Explaining addiction in that manner merely feeds into the disease and powerlessness model, when we are not powerless over our addictions at all. I’m not denying that some of these chemical changes are, in fact, irreversible, but they do not effect our ability to overcome our addictions by changing our thoughts, beliefs, and actions. Fortunately there is an entirely different way to look at both the process, and the effects of addiction that is not only equally valid, but also does a much better job of explaining not only how we become dependent upon substances, but also how most of us manage to recover, on our own, from this “irreversible” condition.
Our brains have the ability to rewire themselves, changing structurally and functionally, in response to changes in our environment and our experiences. For most of the twentieth century, the general consensus among neuroscientists was that the brain was relatively fixed and immutable after a certain critical period during early childhood. This belief has been challenged by new findings and evidence, especially detailed brain imaging that has conclusively proven that our brains retain a significant ability to change, which is called “plasticity,” into adulthood, and even old-age. Neurological research indicates that experience can actually change both the brain’s physical structure and functional organization from top to bottom. It was also once believed that our brains can never grow new neurons, but this has also been proven to be false, for at least two areas of the brain having to do with learning can indeed grow new neurons. In fact, it’s happening to you right now as you read this page! This characteristic of the brain, called “Neuroplasticity,” not only is responsible for our ability to learn and unlearn, but also for the ability of some people to recover from serious injuries, strokes, and diseases that disable or disrupt some of their brain functions.Continue reading