So here I am, on a Saturday afternoon, innocently looking to download this week’s Wait Wait… Don’t Tell Me!, when I stumble upon the headline “Addiction Is Not A Disease of the Brain.” At that point, I know I should just walk away — or, even simpler, click away. I should just let it be. But of course, that’s not what happened.
On the one hand, this article seems to be deliberately baiting scientists — enough so that I probably shouldn’t dignify it with a response. On the other hand, there’s just too much to respond to here to avoid it.
The first point that the author makes, after a fairly standard and obvious introduction with which I have no major issues, is this:
“Let us first ask: what makes something — a substance or an activity — addictive? Is there a property shared by all the things to which we can get addicted?
Unlikely. Addictive substances such as alcohol, heroin and nicotine are chemically distinct. Moreover, activities such as gambling, eating, sex — activities that are widely believed to be addictive — have no ingredients.”
As a scientist, my objective reaction was something along the lines of ” Bu…. Wha….? No.” (I’m paraphrasing here.)
The author is fond of analogies, so let me attempt one of my own. “What makes something — a substance or activity — cause weight gain? Is there a property shared by all things which can cause weight gain?
Unlikely. Substances such as sugar, salt, and fat are chemically distinct. Moreover, activities such as watching too much tv, buying junkfood, and underestimating portion sizes — activities that are widely believed to cause weight gain — have no ingredients.”
A thing doesn’t need “ingredients” to be addictive. The commonality between all addictive substances and activities is their effect on neural pathways — and the differences between brains, let alone the differences between one brain in different states and at different periods within the lifespan, make it impossible to single out neural circuits and say “Aha, this and no other thing causes addiction!” Just as the substances and activities in my analogy above all may cause weight gain despite their differences, certain substances and activities are addictive because they are addictive, tautology or no. The fact that addiction is a complicated process in the brain does not mean that the solution to the problem can’t be found in neuroscience — in fact, I would say it indicates the opposite.