Confusion is a cancer to the truth, and clarity is the only antidote to that cancer. One of the most confusing concepts is the belief that drinking and drugging “change the brain” making the habit impossible to stop or moderate without outside intervention or treatment. This theory is wrong on many different levels. The research shows just the opposite, and that’s great news.
Brain-Changes Create Unending Addiction. Or Do They?
Here is how the theory is presented:
Addiction is a function of physical brain changes that drive craving and endless reckless involuntary substance use.
Let’s hit it directly – addiction is not a result of substance-induced brain changes.
The brain is changed and adapts in two very specific ways when ingesting substances heavily and consistently:
- By poisoning the brain tissue with substances, thusly creating injury, tolerance and withdrawal symptoms.
- By repeated thoughts and behaviors that drive neuroplastic change.
Neither of these brain-change scenarios compel the substance user to ingest substances beyond their will. This fact is important, and is the main point of this article.
Brain-Changes Created by Poisoning the Brain
When you ingest substances heavily and consistently, the substances are carried to brain tissue through the bloodstream and slowly poison the brain tissue in various ways. This condition is strictly an issue of toxicity – a physical poisoning. Body tissues and organs including the brain will work hard biologically to achieve physical homeostasis when poisoned like this (this is how you build “tolerance”). If poisoned enough and for long enough, some drugs will induce bodily reactions meant to accommodate the poison you are imposing on the tissues; and should you stop using abruptly, withdrawal symptoms will become the unfortunate, but temporary, result. The safest route to stopping a substance use habit that is marked with tolerance and withdrawal is going to a detox clinic and having medical staff help the individual safely detoxify. Going to a detox clinic is akin to going to a poison control center after ingesting a toxin or poison, the only difference being, that a detox clinic deals strictly with alcohol and drug detox protocols, unlike a poison control center that deals with all manner of dangerous compound detoxification protocols.
Once physically detoxed from the substance safely, the brain tissue and other body tissues return back to physical homeostasis and you can move on with your life. (Unless, of course, there is actual significant, irreversible brain tissue damage such as “wet brain” or a near fatal overdose that results in oxygen deprivation for a long period of time. If this occurs, the body’s baseline after detox might be very different than it would have been had detox/moderation/abstinence occurred months or years prior to the drug induced traumatic brain injury. The good news is this level of brain damage in the drinking or drugging population is extremely rare.) Again, all of what we are describing here are the downstream effects to the brain that occur as a result of prolonged heavy use, they are not the cause of the mental/behavioral habit of heavy use (more on this very important distinction later).
There has certainly been enough research and practical experience in the field of detoxification to know the rough estimates of time it takes to detoxify from the commonly used substances ingested across the globe. This isn’t rocket science; people have detoxed themselves and others from drugs and alcohol for as long as there have been people who prefer and choose heavy use. Also, in looking into the topic of detox specifically, it is important to remove all ideas around theories that have no practical or research basis, such as PAWS (post-acute withdrawal syndrome) that promote the idea that toxic brain changes last for months after cessation of the drug being ingested. They don’t, unless of course you believe they do. If you are in reasonable health, with no other serious health conditions, a competent medical detox facility can safely detoxify your brain and body within days or weeks at the most. Nothing else is required to handle the physical brain changes that are directly attributable to the toxic condition of the overuse of substances.
Simply put, the toxic condition created by choosing to ingest substances heavily and consistently does not change brain chemistry in a way that renders people mentally and emotionally powerless. This idea is the main myth. Even those with actual irreversible physical brain damage as described above in cases of wet brain or severe overdose, the damaged brains in these individuals do not force them to overuse substances. Furthermore, we see more than 90% of all heavy drinkers and/or drug users stop problematic use as a function of age. (Heyman, 2013). In short, nearly everyone with a chemically poisoned brain gets over the problem whether treated or not and regardless of the severity of their habit. This is great, but underreported, news.
Brains Don’t Cause Behavior – The Mind Does That
Again, the Brain-Change Theory states that because you have poisoned brain tissue, that physical poisoning renders you mentally and emotionally powerless to stop yourself from using heavily. Further, it posits that these chemical changes in brain tissue cause cravings and unending use unless outside treatment intervenes. But there is a big problem with this theory; brain tissue doesn’t make people behave – in any way. Brains don’t think, they don’t create feelings, drives, emotions, motives or any other volition. The human mind does that. The brain-change theory is inappropriately brain-centered in its attempt to justify problematic habits, while reality demonstrates that humans are mind-centered and repetitively think their way into deep habits. Of course the brain has a role to play in carrying out the directions given to it by the mind, but these are secondary responses, they are not the cause of behavior. To prove this, try this simple experiment: Try to do something right now, anything, (go pick up a pen) but do so without thinking about doing it first. Run the experiment and you’ll realize your thoughts are the top of the chain of circumstances, not a passive background piece of the behavior tapestry.
The fact is this; we think, and then our thoughts, drives and emotions are processed in the brain’s tissue, and then we act in some fashion. Like any other behavior we might make, this order is also the case when actively choosing to drink and drug repetitively; mind/thoughts first, brain processing second, actions (observable behavior) last. If motivated by our desires to conduct this behavior repetitively, a mental habit will be constructed.
The brain-change theory has the order inappropriately reversed; they see brain-changes as the driver for one’s thoughts and behaviors surrounding use. They literally believe that drug induced brain damage and changes in brain tissue cause people to become powerless minions of substances. This is easy to believe if we make brain tissue the sole cause of thoughts and behaviors.
Now, this is not to say that using substances doesn’t change the brain in some different ways, of course it does. But not in the way it’s described in the brain-change theory. Sure the brain gets poisoned, no one denies this fact. Physical motor functions are sped up or slowed down (depending on the drug ingested and how much). Neural functions are affected sometimes dramatically. But, and this is a big but, products of the mind – drives, thoughts, desires, cravings, motives, emotions, mental constructs and concepts – are outside the scope of brain tissue or brain tissue alterations.
Within the brain-change theory, the terms mind and brain constantly get conflated, mixed and confused. In using these terms loosely and interchangeably throughout the theory, they mix mind and brain as one entity making no real distinction between these two things. They do this by discussing emotions and drives and cravings as products of brain tissue alone, and they make no distinction that a person has these thoughts as a product of their mind. By conflating these two terms and the meanings of the terms in this way, a chemically induced brain-change automatically means a broken, powerless and changed mind – therefore the statement that a person is mentally and emotionally powerless as a result of brain changes becomes entirely plausible. It’s wrong, of course, but the person who hears this and repeats it, will believe it. Therefore it becomes their truth. They now feel powerless and hopeless based on the myth that their brain has changed and is the cause of their desire for drugs and alcohol. This then makes any analysis of their thoughts, drives and reasons for use completely ignored. Their thinking apparatus, the mind, is left out of the equation.
Is it any wonder people feel lost and powerless in such a belief system? Is it any wonder they feel fragile, weak, broken, and confused? By ignoring the actual component that is driving their behavior (their own mind), people lose touch with their ability to choose and guide their own lives. This is why they feel a constant need for others to support them, prop them up, validate their feelings and provide constant advice. It’s a perfect theory to promote a need for “treatment”.
But here are the facts: brain changes as a result of heavy use matter little, if at all, in a situation where a person wants to move past a substance use problem. We know this because people get past their drug and alcohol habits with boring regularity (at rates over 90%) while many of them are at the extreme height of their substance induced “brain-change” cycle. This throws the brain change addiction theory on its head. As said in the book, The Freedom Model for Addictions, “brain changes be damned.”
Brain Changes Caused by Mental Habit
The second way a substance use habit causes brain change besides poisoning is through the mental repetition of the substance taking ritual. This is where the mind creates the mental and emotional drive to drink and/or drug based on the individual’s own preferences, thoughts, and desires. In these cases, they invest their thoughts (mind) in the process of getting drunk or high, and rituals (drug taking behavior) naturally develop downstream of said thoughts. We appropriately call a ritual like consistent drug taking, a habit – but knowing all habits begin in the mind is the most important fact that will help you avoid the dead-end road of the false brain disease, brain-change theories. Also, the habit itself is many times inappropriately labeled as an “addiction” – a compelled behavior by some outside force or disease. So let’s avoid all that baggage, misinformation, guilt and shame associated with the addiction labeling and instead stick with the accurate concept and term, habit.
Ignore the Mind – Ignore the Real Solution
Unfortunately, the mental and emotional half of the brain-change addiction argument gets marginalized, and in many cases is completely ignored. Let me explain. In the brain-change theory, because the theory itself is brain-centered, what you actually think matters little, when in fact it’s everything! One of the main reasons the mental and emotional mind-based driver of habits gets ignored is because addiction professionals and researchers use physical brain scans to justify a mental addiction (the habit). This is a backwards process, and as such is woefully wrongheaded. By seeking to dig out the facts on addiction through a scan of brain tissue, the researchers are implicitly saying that brain tissue creates the behavior, and we now can see that this is backwards. Remember, the human mind is actually the engine of the train while the brain is the car, with behaviors being the caboose.
The justification for addiction existing as a form of drug induced brain change that is irreversible is usually made by the medical and addiction research community pointing at various brain scans of those who are actively getting high, against comparative scans when they are no longer getting high. But there’s a big problem with this approach. These scans are snapshots in time of a massively complex organ performing multiple functions at that particular moment. What they are attempting to record through the scans is the subject’s behavior and how the “addict” is affected behaviorally through drug-taking or abstaining. But, what’s actually being recorded on the scans is not an accurate depiction of those mental and emotional products of the mind, but rather blood flow, electrical and chemical processes, not the actual thoughts that remain in the metaphysical realm of the mind. These physical signs are abstract representations that something is happening, nothing more. In reality, the details of the scan could only be expressed accurately by the autonomous mind of the individual themselves, not the researchers (I have yet to meet a researcher with mind-reading as a second discipline).
In order for the study to have a shred of validity, the test subject would need to remember every single thought, feeling, idea, emotion, and motive at the instant the scan was taken for an accurate analysis to be gleaned. Then, thousands upon thousands of these scans would need to be taken with that same subject, with the same attention to detail in record taking to find patterns. Then, and only then, could the first nip of progress be made in understanding what a scan in that single subject even means! And at that point, you might be able to go out into the population and conduct this same lengthy process to a large sample size of a particular group of people within a society, and then you may begin to get a general idea of what brain-change factors might enhance an individual’s “addiction”. Even after all that work, we still must make an entirely subjective connection between the answers given and the physical scan taken, basically guessing what it all might mean.
Why not skip the brain scan charade entirely and just ask the millions who naturally age out of their addictions every year, how they did it?
Is Neuroplasticity a Factor in Overcoming Addiction?
“But doesn’t the mind (thoughts and emotions) affect brain tissue? Isn’t this the kind of brain change that may take months or even years to reverse?” The answer is maybe, but that’s up to you and what you decide to think about.
What that person is asking is what role do repetitive thoughts about drugs and alcohol have in the overall landscape of addiction, and how does that factor affect rates of getting over a substance use problem? Some might refer to this concept as “mental addiction”. This is the second factor we listed at the beginning of the article. The second factor is called neuroplasticity, the idea that the brain changes in structure based on thoughts, mental habits, repeated acts and motivated behavior. A better word for this phenomenon is learning.
Yes, our brain tissue reacts to input from the mind and it develops neural adaptation in the form of rewiring and structural changes to accommodate habitual thoughts and behaviors. Essentially, our mind directs the brain to accommodate repeated and motivated thoughts and emotions – thusly making the brain’s processing of said repeated and motivated thoughts quite efficient. Again, this is how you learned to walk, talk, take drugs, love someone, build concepts in your mind and act on them, etc. For example, what some people call a drug or drinking habit, must first become a habit in their thoughts – in their mind (note how I am making a distinction between the mind and the brain here). Again, brain tissue doesn’t think, it doesn’t feel, it doesn’t want, it doesn’t love, etc. All of that occurs in the mind of the individual. Your thought life is where life is experienced. You are quite literally, your mind. The brain is simply the hardware processor of the software of your mind. The brain is needed to convert the intelligence of your thoughts and emotions and experiences into practical application in the physical day to day life and realm. It essentially is the middle man between the mind and the physical environment.
So yes, your brain changes in structure to accommodate repeated thoughts. This builds efficiency into all of your daily tasks, including substance-taking rituals. But does this mean that you are forever stuck in these rituals as the brain-disease theorists would have you believe? Of course not, but the treatment community wants you to believe you are. In reality, the same neuroplastic reactions to your repeated thoughts and behaviors that make your substance use rituals so efficient, can change the brain to build not-taking rituals or moderate-use habits. For the millions who have reversed their problematic substance use habits into non problematic levels or successful abstinence, they created the same neuroplastic brain changes, just in the opposite direction. In other words – change your mind, change your brain in any direction you want.
Make the Choice to Change
So what does all this mean? Know that more than 9 out of 10 heavy habitual alcohol and/or drug users get over their problems with or without treatment as they age. This happens as a function of people thinking that moderate use or abstinence are the happier, more fulfilling options compared to continuing their previous heavy use. They come to these conclusions in their minds, and they act accordingly regardless of detox issues (they may or may not enter a detox clinic), brain changes, or whatever other “causes” are being peddled by the recovery-centered world we live in today. Fact is, you were born with a mind and a brain that work in a symbiotic relationship that allow for you to choose your lifestyle and behaviors. You are in control and always have been. It’s just a matter of understanding this truth and deciding what you think is best for you and then moving in that direction.