In this earlier post we discovered how we learn, retain information, and form habits both good and bad. We learned that the brain forms neural networks, based upon our experiences, that these produce thoughts, beliefs, and actions, both healthy and unhealthy, and at times we seem to have little control over them.
Some of our habits and beliefs become really well ingrained from long and frequent usage, and it sometimes seems as though we are powerless to change them. When we combine an intrinsically addictive substance with an unhealthy belief system we have a combination that seems nearly impossible to overcome. People just like us do exactly that, though, as we learned in this post. Perhaps they used the tool I’m about to teach you, but most, like myself, weren’t even aware that it existed.
We are going to be using this tool throughout the rest of the book, so it makes sense to introduce the main points all in one place, so you can refer back to it, if necessary, as you move along. It sounds complicated at first, but once you get the hang of it, it’s really very simple.
Rational Emotive Behavior Therapy (REBT) is a system of therapy, and a school of thought established by Dr. Albert Ellis in the mid 1950’s. REBT was one of the first cognitive behavior therapies, and one that lends itself well to both professional use and self-help. The basic premise of REBT is that we are not effected emotionally by events themselves, but by how we interpret them based upon our perceptions, attitudes, and the language we use to describe them.Continue reading
From Reward to Slavery, the Stages of Addiction
The word “addiction” is derived from a Latin term for “enslaved by” or “bound to.” Anyone who has struggled to overcome an addiction — or has tried to help someone else to do so — understands why. In the first chapter, addiction was presented as a continuum, as there are degrees of severity, it’s not an on-or-off condition. In chapter 2, we saw that the criteria become more severe as the disorder progresses. In this section, we are going to look at addiction from a new direction — from the standpoint of neuroplasticity. If a substantial part of addiction is learned behavior, how and why does it happen, and most importantly, how can we go about reversing or countermanding the learned part of the process.
Earlier, we learned that there are three phases, or stages of normal learning. the acquisition phase, where we gather sensory data and decide what to do with it; the declarative phase, or memory we use in conscious decision-making; and finally, working or habit memory, which governs actions we take without the intervention or collaboration of our conscious mind. Although behavioral characteristics vary with the particular drug, the process of addiction can also be divided into three distinct stages, which correspond to the three memory phases.[i]
All drugs of abuse trigger the limbic system by stimulating the release of dopamine in the neurons.[ii],[iii] This stimulation focuses our attention, gives us pleasure, and causes our brain circuitry to record the entire experience, so it can be repeated in the future. Because it’s the limbic system that’s involved, the message is powerful, and even the early experiences are encoded quite strongly.[iv] The dopamine release triggered by drug use is two to ten times stronger and of much longer duration than that of any normal biological rewards.[v] For such rewards, (eating, sex, etc.) once the person has learned the most efficient behavior to obtain a reward, dopamine release to facilitate further learning is not necessary and does not occur.[vi] Drug use, on the other hand, always produces a dopamine release if a sufficient amount is taken, even in chronic users.[vii]Continue reading
In February, I had the opportunity to address a group here in Ajijic on the topic of neuroplasticity, and how it applies to addiction and an ageing population. The video is in three segments, and totals about 40 minutes in length. The talk was given on the 19th of February, following three weeks that were unseasonably chilly here, and we even had a little rain, if anyone is curious about the references to the weather in the first part of the talk.
The venue was our Sunday morning “Open Circle” gathering. Each week we have a speaker on a different topic, typically someone local with specialized expertise in a certain area. They let me speak anyway, and, in fact, they let me come back on April 22nd to talk about Rational Emotive Behavior Therapy, which I’ll be posting here in a week or so.
Enjoy the video! When you reach the end of the first segment, click on the little white box to start the second segment. Rinse, repeat.
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