The Science of Addiction

Lots of people are addicted to something these days, whether it’s pills, cigarettes or alcohol, or maybe even sex. In this article, we specifically discuss the science of addiction and we specifically pinpoint the biological commonalities that apply to all addictions.

All addictions share a common brain biology. All addictions may be classified as a disorder of the brain’s reward system, in such a way that addiction distorts the brain’s fundamental motivational systems. Natural motivations that allow us to work, love our family and to eat and sleep become submerged into a single activity that’s better known as an addiction. This could be to use a drug or to engage in a certain behaviour.

When an addiction arises, the brain’s biology confuses the message of the addictive drug or behaviour with the message of survival itself. We hope this gives you an appreciation of the power of an addiction’s message for people who experience addiction. An addiction is literally a distortion of the brain’s survival systems.

Whilst addiction is rooted in biology with a genetic basis, there is always an inciting incident that activates this genetic potential. More often than not, this inciting incident is some form of trauma suffered in childhood. When assessing clients at the beginning of addiction treatment, it’s important to determine whether there is a family history linked to addiction.

This could signify a genetic disorder that means the person is more likely to suffer from addiction. It’s also important to determine the consequences that have arisen because of the addiction, and if those consequences have fuelled the person’s decision to seek out treatment. If the person has continued to use alcohol or engage in a behaviour despite negative consequences arising from doing so, this is a sign that the biological portion of addiction is preventing the person from breaking free from this destructive behaviour.

One theory is that childhood trauma changes the trajectory of how our brains develop. A child who has suffered trauma is likely to leave the interpersonal frame so that they no longer trust others. For instance, they can no longer tolerate closeness and they thus becomes socially isolated from others.

This trauma means the frame that allows us to develop emotional regulation is not sufficiently developed for adult survivors of childhood trauma. This results in these people suffering from feelings that are too prolonged, too negative and too ‘stuck’. This causes these people to reach outside of themselves for a behaviour that allows them to regulate their emotions. This is what triggers the addictive process.

In recent years, some believe we have witnessed a pandemic in childhood trauma. This means we are starting to see more incidents of severe addiction. For instances, it’s relatively rare these day for a person to ‘only’ be addicted to one substance. Instead, people experiencing addiction are more likely to be addicted to many different types of drugs or behaviours. This means the addictions are more severe and this is often reflected in the news by what we see from celebrities.

The biological causes of addiction mean that giving up isn’t just a matter of will power. Addiction causes lasting changes in how the brain operates. When a drug is consumed or when an addictive behaviour is experienced, dopamine is produced in the brain. This allows the person to experience pleasure. Overtime, the substance or behaviour loses its pleasure enhancing power. This means the person with the addiction must expose him or herself to greater quantities of the pleasure enhancing in order to experience this initial pleasure.

Over time, the addict needs to experience the addictive drug or behaviour in order to experience any sort of pleasure in his or her life. The addict must refrain from taking drugs or engaging in addictive behaviours for a very long time before pleasure can once again be experienced naturally. It’s also true to say that the memory of the addiction will not simply fade away overnight. This explains why the danger of relapse is ever present for people who have manage to overcome their addiction to substances or certain behaviours.