In yesterday's New York Times, health reporter and conventional wisdom barometer Jane Brody notes a startling scientific discovery: "Every addictive substance, according to a report this month in The New England Journal of Medicine, induces pleasant states or relieves distress."
Did anyone think that people liked drugs because they induced unpleasant states or increased distress? And what's so special about drug use in this respect? Couldn't other activities that induce pleasant states or relieve distress–gambling, eating, sex, exercise, watching TV, Web surfing, playing video games, etc.–also be the focus of an addiction?
Brody does not say. She is too busy reinforcing the image of drugs as malevolent forces that take control of people and force them to sin:
The authors of the report…wrote, "Continued use induces adaptive changes in the central nervous system that lead to tolerance, physical dependence, sensitization, craving and relapse."
In other words, addiction is a brain disease, not a moral failing or behavior problem. People do not deliberately set out to become addicts. Rather, for any number of reasons — like wanting to be part of the crowd or seeking relief from intense emotional or physical pain — people may start using a substance and soon find themselves unable to stop.
Yet Brody's gloss does not follow from the observation that drugs affect the central nervous system. So does every experience. When we learn something or form a habit, our brains change. Does that make bad beliefs and bad habits brain diseases?
Likewise, Brody tells us that "drugs of abuse [activate] a pleasure pathway in the brain, the 'dopamine reward circuit,' which is connected to areas that control memory, emotion and motivation. Any activity that activates those pathways reinforces the pleasurable behavior."
Again, in what sense is this dopamine activation fundamentally different from the pleasure people experience from a wide variety of non-drug-related activities? Shouldn't the focus be on whether bad consequences flow from a particular activity, not whether it affects dopamine levels?
Although Brody depicts drugs as irresistible and inescapable, later in the article she cites figures indicating that most drug users do not become addicted. And while she claims that addicts "find themselves unable to stop," she also says, "That it is possible to become free of addictions and remain so is unquestioned." Not only that, but "some addicts manage to kick their habits without any outside help."
According to Brody, these logical leaps and self-contradictions amount to "a better understanding of the pull and tug of addiction."
[Thanks to Jeff Schaler for the link.]