The Causes and Complexity of Addiction

Everyone loses when we dumb down addiction.


Addiction touches everyone. Sometimes directly, sometimes indirectly. But the results are always the same: people are hurt, lives are destroyed.

As a Christian who has struggled with addiction, I’ve tended to view this subject through a moral lens. And there certainly are moral choices involved.

But addiction is much more complicated than just right or wrong. There are mental, emotional, genetic, social, and spiritual dimensions at play. To reduce it to any one of these is to do a disservice to the addict and to society.

I thought the following panel did a nice job of discussing the science of addiction. My summary is below.

  • At its core, addiction is a biological process in the brain that we can work to understand and improve.
  • Drugs and addictive behaviors rewire the brain so that only the addiction brings a reward.
  • Given the choice between food, water, sex, a running wheel, and cocaine, only a certain subset of mice will get hooked on cocaine. It’s the same with people; some are more vulnerable to addiction than others.
  • Addiction is highly inheritable. It’s been estimated that 50% of the risk is genetic.
  • A person’s social environment plays a big role in addiction. Dysfunctional surrounding are more likely to trigger addiction. Many addicts have gone through trauma of some sort and have low self-esteem.
  • Addiction has only recently been recognized as a disease. It’s traditionally been viewed and treated as a moral problem to be addressed through the 12 steps.
  • We now have medicine that is proven to help treat addiction. But it is underutilized and even vilified by some groups because they see it as simply replacing one drug with another. In addition, it is rarely offered by healthcare professionals.
  • While definitions of addiction vary, someone can become addicted to anything that increases dopamine such as eating, sex, the internet, shopping, video games, etc.
  • You get a dog to let go of a bone by giving it something better, like a steak. It’s similar with treating addiction. One of the ways addicts recover is by replacing their addiction with something better which produces dopamine naturally such as art, music, exercise, yoga, martial arts, healthy eating, meditation, etc.
  • More and better options + less stress = less likelihood of addiction.
  • Even as we grow in our understanding of addiction as a disease, there is still a huge stigma around it that keeps research funding low. It also keeps people from seeking help.
  • Interesting fact: D.A.R.E. is proven not to work, yet it continues to be used in 75% of schools.
  • Prescription drug addiction has become a major problem in our culture. Last year, 16,000 people died from overdosing on prescription drugs.

And there’s more. As one author discovered, addiction is less about the chemicals and more about the connection, or the lack thereof. A few excerpts from his findings:

Human beings have a deep need to bond and form connections. It’s how we get our satisfaction. If we can’t connect with each other, we will connect with anything we can find — the whirr of a roulette wheel or the prick of a syringe. [Professor Peter Cohe] says we should stop talking about ‘addiction’ altogether, and instead call it ‘bonding.’ A heroin addict has bonded with heroin because she couldn’t bond as fully with anything else.

Human beings are bonding animals. We need to connect and love. The wisest sentence of the twentieth century was E.M. Forster’s — “only connect.” But we have created an environment and a culture that cut us off from connection, or offer only the parody of it offered by the Internet. The rise of addiction is a symptom of a deeper sickness in the way we live — constantly directing our gaze towards the next shiny object we should buy, rather than the human beings all around us.

If you want to see the whole picture of addiction, you need to put all of the puzzle pieces together. If you want to solve it, you need to begin constructing a whole new image.

What’s your top takeaway from all this? Who is one person you think might benefit from reading it?

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