Some of you are old enough to remember the 1980’s TV announcement about your brain on drugs. The one where someone cracks an egg into a hot pan to show how illegal drugs “fry” your brain. Well, it wasn’t far from wrong, and today we know why.
Neuroscience (study of the brain), and cognitive psychology (study of why we do what we do), have made huge leaps since the fried egg days. Now, neuroimaging technologies can show us that pleasurable activities — drinking, drug use, gambling, shopping, and sex – can actually hijack the brain. That’s because our built-in rewards network is always at work to satisfy basic human needs — if it didn’t feel good to eat when we’re hungry, we might die of starvation. So, our brain rewards us with a surge of the feel-good neurotransmitter dopamine when we do things needed to sustain life
Unfortunately, it’s a delicate system. Pleasure reward circuits are also connected to motivation and to memory. Addictive substances and behaviors can overstimulate this circuitry – here’s where the frying comes in – causing systems overload.
In nature, rewards come by expending time and effort. But addictive drugs and behaviors provide a shortcut, a type of malware that floods our brain with dopamine and other neurotransmitters. Since the human brain can’t withstand that onslaught of goodies, it responds by producing less dopamine or eliminating dopamine receptors altogether. In response, we increase our addictive behavior, desperately trying to replicate that original dopamine reward. It’s all about physiology.
Contemporary knowledge of “your brain on drugs” has changed the definition of addiction to a chronic brain disease. Science has proven once and for all that “moral weakness’ or “lack of willpower” are not the causes of addiction.
During Brain Awareness Week from March 15-21, explore this video: Your Brain on Drugs