Is Neuroscience Wrong about Addiction?

The claim that addiction is a disease has been greatly boosted by evidence coming from the world of neuroscience. There are even scans to show that addicts can develop physical changes to the structure of their brain – apparently this is enough to earn the title of a brain disease.

Annotated Sagittal T1 Midline MRI Scan of Reigh's Brain

The fact that there are now scientists interested enough to investigate addiction is a wonderful thing. We need new solutions because addiction problems are on the rise, and too many people are dying because of it. I have to say though, the claim that addiction is a brain disease that will be cured by neuroscience doesn’t sound very convincing to me. It completely ignores the fact that people have motivations for turning to alcohol in the first place. My concerns have been summed up nicely recently in a post by Wray Herbert for the Huffington Post called – The Heart and Mind of Addiction

Herbert writes:

“…the official view of the National Institute on Drug Abuse that addiction is a “chronic and relapsing brain disease.” What’s more, this disease model today has the gloss of neuroscience to legitimize it, complete with colorful fMRI images of addicted brains. This dogma dispenses with questions about will and morality and reduces all addictions to “hijacked” brain circuits involved in reward and pleasure.

Satel and Lilienfeld effectively debunk this reductionist view. They show that many addicts continue to have large periods of calm in their daily lives, during which they make the usual decisions about jobs and children’s schools and so forth. What’s more, most quit. Indeed, quitting is the rule rather than the exception. This would not be true if were an unrelenting and permanent brain affliction.

This post by Wray Herbert’s was inspired by a new book called Brainwashed: The Seductive Appeal of Mindless Neuroscience by Sally Satel, and Scott O. Lilenfield. I’m going to put this on my reading list because there is a whole chapter devoted to addiction. I do think that the claims for neuroscience are greatly exaggerated, and it will be interesting to hear what the experts think – or at least people who are more clued-in about neuroscience than me.

I fell into alcoholism because it seemed to be offering an easy path through life. I gave up alcohol almost twenty years later because I become convinced that there was a better way of life for me. I had been been in and out of addiction treatment programs since my late teens, but it was only when I gave up on the idea that I had a disease that I got better. I don’t see how any of this had anything to do with changes to the structure of my brain.

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2 thoughts on “Is Neuroscience Wrong about Addiction?

  1. As with every explanation steming from a nature versus nurture debate, it is both. The more chemicals we put in our brain the more we change our brain chemistry and likewise, the less we put in – that changes it too. But why do we drink or why do we stop, that is entirely in combination with our worlds around us, the brain for which we live in and (we) are a neuron of.

    Thanks for the post, I believe many recovery teachers can rely too heavily on the brain disease model and it removes any thought of control or influence over our behavior, “I can’t help it” syndrome. Have a good day! Donna

    1. Thanks Donna, it is justification for the “I can’t help it” syndrome that worries me most about these claims. I think there is far too much emphasis being put on the idea that we are the victim of our brain. It is like we have swung from one extreme to another – a century ago addicts were seen as just weak willed but now it has moved to them having no real responsibility for their life.

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