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Friday, 17 April 2015

Addictions

I'm addicted to liquorice (NL: drop). The smell and taste is always somewhere in my brain. My mind knows that it's a bad habit and thus I can restrain myself, at least most of the times. I can still remember the afternoon that my dad took my brother and me to the city of Alkmaar to buy supplies for his store. He also needed a 5 kg box of liquorice. He used to offer them as a small incentive to his customers. On the way home my brother and I opened that box and started eating liquorice. Although I felt really sick after eating too much liquorice, it didn't stop my addiction. 

Some years ago, I worked in an office that had an open jar full of liquorice on one of the office desks. The jar was refilled by everyone using it. One day, our Indian expat colleague, who had noticed us eating liquorice, asked if he could eat one as well. No problem. I will always remember his face while chewing it. After a few seconds, his face turned to utter disgust and he spit out the liquorice in full contempt. He clearly had expected a very, very different sensation.

So why is one man's addiction another man's disgust ?

First of all, addictions are not privy to humans. Animals can get addicted too. The only difference is that they do not realise that it's bad for them. They just enjoy the sensation.

Animals experience similar difficulties as humans regarding addiction. While we humans have the ability to rationalise our actions and draw conclusions from those rationalisations, animals function on instinct – their behaviour is based on an innate genetic constitution. Chemical reactions in their brains produce stimulants and sensations that indicate to them that their actions are “correct”. Opioid, dopamine, oxytocin and numerous other neuro hormones regulate behaviour through a process that rewards the animal for behaviour that is essential to its survival. (Source)

When these “rewards” are offered in the absence of the “behaviour”, they are often embraced, since the rewards involve pleasurable stimulation.  In the natural world, it is rare that the rewards are available to the animal without the behaviour. Thus, there is little addiction in the animal kingdom. However, when the stimulant is artificially introduced, addiction can quickly take over and, often, consume the animal. Mice have been known to starve to death when faced with an either/or choice between cocaine and food. (Source)

Animals are not in a position to make “rational” decisions regarding their actions. They act in order to achieve the “reward” which is nature’s way to induce the animal to maintain its survival. When that “natural” reward system is tampered with, the “survival” of the animal, in fact, becomes threatened. (Source)

I am convinced that everyone can get addicted to anything as the individual trigger mechanism releases powerful sensational chemical reactions in our brain. Yet, these triggers vary enormously. For me it's liquorice. For someone else it's alcohol or cocaine or worse.

The difficulty with addictions is that the brain is "telling" the mind that it's okay doing or using it. It's like the mind being increasingly cocooned from any impulse other than the brain. When the human mind is switched off then survival becomes threatened similar to addicted animals. Understanding this tragic phenomenon, and recognising that it is not a character flaw, is the first step towards recovery.

When it comes to addictions, the real issue is: who is the boss? Your brain or your mind?