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Addiction in the Plastic Brain

June 21, 2012

David Sheff’s son, Nic started using drugs when he was 13. By the time he was a late teen, Meth had completely grabbed every part of his being and set he and his family on a nightmare journey from which they have never really returned. Dad, a free-lance writer, tells his side of the story in the book “Beautiful Boy: A Father’s Journey Through his Son’s Addiction”. Nic tells it from his point of view in “Tweaked”. There are some points where they differ, but it is essentially the same story. David, the writer, tells the story more eloquently while Nic’s account is raw and first-person. They are both good reads.

Nic’s story has a twist that most addicts don’t encounter. Between David, Nic’s mom (David’s ex-wife) and David’s current wife, they have the finances to send Nic to the best treatment centers in the country. And they have done so. However, even with the world’s best addiction specialists working with Nic, he has failed to overcome his addiction. Meth still rules his life.

In one of the last rounds of treatment, David was confronted with a horrid piece of news: Meth is so damaging to the brain’s ability to change (i.e. plasticity) that he may not ever be able to kick the habit. By addiction standards, he may be an addict until he dies.

Why is that? As I said in the last article, the brain is capable of changing itself much more than people think. There are at least a half dozen ways it does this, but none as important as LTD (also known as Long-Term Depression). By the way, don’t think of the word “depression” here in the counseling sense. In brain chemistry, this word “depression” means to “push something down”. When the brain senses that a chemical or a process is hurting mental functions, it sends out chemicals to the synapses to “depress” their activity. This explains why  you might take a drug for a year and find it is effective and then all of a sudden, it stops working. The brain doesn’t want it any more and it creates a “long-term depressant” to stop the chemical from working.

According to this study done two years ago in Bordeaux, France by Pier Vincenzo Piazza and Olivier Manzoni, the brains of some addicts are literally burned out and cannot produce enough LTD to stop the effects of certain drugs. Meth and cocaine are the worst for overpowering the LTD process.

However, there is another side to this equation that might be helpful for everyone who wants to live a healthy emotional and spiritual life. The mind can do anything you want it to do. It can depress itself, it can delight, it can cause itself to have panic attacks, it can choose to block memories, it can live in unreality, it can live in reality, it can find contentment; in short, our brain can rewire itself any way we desire. How does this work?

I won’t bore you with the chemical mechanics, so allow this to be a very simplistic summary. Our brain stores its experiences in different locations. Our images are stored in one place, smells in another, logic in one place, emotions in another. When we have an experience, we chop up the data and store the memory in a hundred different locations. We draw upon the data when it reinforces our chosen behavior.

When you store something, you store it according to what you want to do with it in the future. We are always learning and remembering. Let’s say you go to the store and your mother gives you a piece of candy. And it is a blustery, rainy and depressing type day. As soon as you eat the candy, the sugar makes you feel better. So, from that day you may associate all these things together: Mother, bad weather day, sugar, grocery stores etc.

Now, let’s say you take one or two of those associations and keep repeating them. Let’s say every time the weather gets bad, you go shopping. Let’s say you do that thirty or forty times. After that, just the appearance of dark clouds makes you think of shopping. You have wired your brain that way. If you also get sugar every time you go shopping on a bad day, you have doubly reinforced that connection. If you make that triple connection for 20 years, you have long since forgotten why you go shopping on bad weather days. And if you try and stop, there are chemicals in the brain that will be produced to give you discomfort. In essence, you will feel pain.

That, in a nutshell, is how ALL addictions work.

The answer to it is always “stop making those connections”. However, even though I know that, and even though I don’t like gaining weight from eating too much candy and maxing out my credit cards in the rainy season, I don’t want to stop either. I don’t like the painful way I feel if I resist the connection. The way I have wired my brain reinforces my choices. When I want to choose something else, I am punished. When I continue the behavior, I am rewarded.

But I can stop going shopping on a bad weather day. It will mean rewiring through beliefs, different choices and alternative lifestyle changes. It may take years to completely rid myself of all the vestiges of those choices, but here is the good news: If I want to (i.e. motivated to, decide to, learn what I really want and know how to get it) I can change. And changing my brain means rewiring my brain.

All our ingrained behavior is based on beliefs. And all those beliefs are stored as synaptic processes in the brain. Therefore, all repetitive behavior is a type of addiction.

In the Bible, God is pretty clear on how we change one behavior and choose another. In Romans 12:2 it says “Do not conform any longer to the patterns of this culture, but rather, be transformed by the renewing of your mind.” There are several greek words here which need to be understood to get the full meaning.

Conform: It means to change shape to match some other thing

Patterns: repetitive behavior

Culture: The world system around us

Transformed: The greek word is metamorphoo, which means to go through a series of changes.

Renewing: The Greek word means to take something meant for one thing and use it another way. It comes closest to our modern word “recycling”.

So let’s put it together. The writer of Romans says: “Stop changing your mind so that it looks like the behavior of everyone in your group of friends. Instead, go through a process whereby your brain changes into something different and is used in a different way than ever before”.

In order to understand how this works, our next article is going to focus on three societal problems that have reached epidemic proportions and how each can be changed by a spiritual rewiring of the brain:

Dangerous flirtation

Controlling actions

Depression and Anxiety

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