Civil Liberties

Everyday Acts of Resistance

Do brain scans prove that people are powerless against chocolate cake and porn?


An online gourmet food shop calls its Maple Cream Cookies "truly delicious and addictive." In John Banzhaf's view, that description should be treated not as a selling point but as a warning.

Banzhaf, a George Washington University law professor who never saw a problem that couldn't be solved by suing someone, argues that food sellers have a legal duty to warn consumers about the dangerous deliciousness of high-calorie products such as ice cream, cheeseburgers, and potato chips. "Bet you can't eat just one!" presumably wouldn't count.

Banzhaf cites "growing evidence…that eating some fattening foods can cause addictive reactions in the brain just like nicotine," evidence he says is sufficient "to warrant at least a warning about possible addictive effects." He advises food companies that such warnings would help shield them from liability—very sporting of him, since he is a leading advocate of suing them for making people fat.

Banzhaf's latest evidence is an article in the December Psychology Today that likens overeating to drug addiction. "Like addicts," it says, "overeaters may be compensating for a sluggish dopamine system by turning to the one thing that gets their neurons pumping… It's a mark of changing times—and more sophisticated science—that the head of the National Institute on Drug Abuse is thinking about doughnuts as well as heroin."

Perceiving a threat to personal responsibility, conservatives tend to reject such comparisons as outlandish exaggerations. Surely donuts—a familiar product that most of us consume in moderation, if at all—are nothing like heroin, which everyone knows is the most addictive drug around. (Except for crack. And methamphetamine. And nicotine.)

But such scoffing reflects a misunderstanding of drug addiction, which is neither inevitable nor inescapable. The government's own statistics indicate that the vast majority of people who use drugs—even such reputedly powerful substances as heroin and crack—never become addicts. Those who do often manage to stop or moderate their use. There are about as many former smokers in this country as smokers, for example, and they typically quit without formal "treatment."

It's hard to deny the parallels between overeating and drug addiction: People find eating pleasurable, often eat more than they initially intend, regret their overeating, and have trouble cutting back to lose weight despite the health risks and social costs of being fat. Most striking is the ambivalence, the conflict between short-term and long-term interests that creates the appearance that people want to change their behavior but can't.

The mistake lies in accepting that appearance at face value. People do, after all, shed pounds when their reasons for eating less outweigh their desire to eat more. Just as important, people can avoid overeating in the first place, no matter how "truly delicious and addictive" the food they encounter.

By focusing on brain scans and analogies to drugs widely (though wrongly) believed to be irresistible, activists like Banzhaf obscure the possibility of self-control. As the psychiatrist Sally Satel observed at a 2003 conference on obesity, "virtually every pleasure we encounter is associated with surges in dopamine," and brain images "cannot distinguish between an irresistible impulse and an impulse that is not resisted."

Yet anti-vice crusaders continue to cite such research as evidence that people cannot reasonably be expected to control themselves, and the tendency is not limited to activists on the left. At a recent hearing convened by Sen. Sam Brownback (R-Kan.), Judith Reisman of the California Protective Parents Association testified that "pornography triggers myriad kinds of internal, natural drugs that mimic the 'high' from a street drug. Addiction to pornography is addiction to what I dub erotoxins."

In Reisman's telling, the conscious mind plays no role in people's reactions to pornography. She called the effects of sexually explicit material "brain sabotage," warning that "pornographic visual images imprint and alter the brain, triggering an instant, involuntary, but lasting, biochemical memory trail, arguably subverting the First Amendment by overriding the cognitive speech process."

This is the sort of choice-negating reductionism, leaving no room for tastes, values, or learning, that conservatives usually reject when it comes to, say, fast food ads. All experiences "imprint and alter the brain." That fact tells us nothing about how people respond to those experiences—whether with disgust or enthusiasm, moderation or excess.

Reisman and other critics of pornography say it's dehumanizing, reducing people to genitals. The same could be said of a behavioral theory that looks at people and sees only biochemicals.