Leave it to addiction scientists to tell us things which are already painfully obvious, act is if they alone are privy to this advanced knowledge, and hold it up as evidence of a disease! When the brain disease model of addiction was first spread, it was done simply by showing us brain scans, mentioning neurotransmitters, and using a lot of scientific jargon. But, as the proponents of this theory have made more and more media appearances, and gone into more detail on their theories, they have begun to explain things a tiny bit more honestly:
Understanding how unhealthy behaviors become ingrained has scientists learning some tricks that may help good habits replace the bad.
“Why are bad habits stronger? You’re fighting against the power of an immediate reward,” says Dr. Nora Volkow, director of the National Institute on Drug Abuse and an authority on the brain’s pleasure pathway.
It’s the fudge vs. broccoli choice: Chocolate’s yum factor tends to beat out the knowledge that sticking with veggies brings an eventual reward of lost pounds.
“We all as creatures are hard-wired that way, to give greater value to an immediate reward as opposed to something that’s delayed,” Volkow says.
Just how that bit of happiness turns into a habit involves a pleasure-sensing chemical named dopamine. It conditions the brain to want that reward again and again—reinforcing the connection each time—especially when it gets the right cue from your environment. (SOURCE)
Here we see that the language of rewards is being used to describe addiction, but remember that Volkow is the reigning head of the NIDA who can’t seem to stop herself from repeating the mantra that addiction is a disease – even though she recognizes it’s a matter of rewards. If rewards are involved in a human behavior, then by implication, choice must be involved. BTW – I disagree with her assertion that we are “hard-wired” toward immediate rewards. We can learn to pursue greater yet delayed rewards – that’s what growing up is all about. To say we’re “hard-wired” means that we can’t change, and that we have no choice.
Another influential researcher did a complex study where he viewed people’s brains as they played a game that rewarded them with money for pushing buttons. The study showed the dopamine boost associated with receiving the reward, and the fact that the behavior of pushing certain buttons becomes automatized or habitual after enough repetition. Even though there was no rhyme or reason to which buttons should be pushed, the activity was still learned and repeated because there was a reward associated with it. Here’s what he had to say in an interview:
So successful change… also depends on finding the right rewards. “If people got paid to exercise,” he tells me, “everyone would do it. And this country would be much better off.” (SOURCE)
These scientists are telling us things that are obvious to any thinking person. It’s not hard at all to see that activities with immediate rewards are far more tempting than those with delayed rewards. It’s a classic pattern played out through all of humanity. There’s the guy who skips out on college because he wants to make money right now, cut the strings between him and his parents, and run around partying. This is a classic case of trading a delayed and much more valuable reward for an immediate yet shallow reward. Go to college, do the hard work of learning, live modestly now: earn much more money years down the road, and have better job security – or skip that, make enough money to keep you clubbing and partying, buy a nice car, and shack up with the girlfriend now: but lower your chances for higher salary and security in the future.
We know the example above, we’ve seen it played out again and again – and most of us will call it what it is frankly: poor choices – short-sightedness – or just plain old irrationality. Centuries ago the principle might have been typified by the farmer who was lazy and didn’t raise enough food to get him through the winter, or didn’t save seeds for the next year – and he ended up dead. Really, we could keep going with examples, but the principle is clear: a key struggle for humanity has always been to make decisions today by judging how they’ll affect you tomorrow. This takes rationality, objective judgment, a valuing of your own life, and a very deliberate choice to see the big picture/look into the future. To live with long-term purpose is to be civilized and smart – to live only for the short term is to be animalistic, primitive, or just plain dumb – this much is obvious in these examples and many more. But why is it that we can’t see that about drug and alcohol addiction?
When people use drugs excessively, they are clearly making a decision to focus their energy only on short-term/immediate rewards – this is no revelation, nor did we need brain scans to understand it. Why this one activity should now be viewed as a disease which robs people of free-will I do not know. I can’t think of any rational reason why we should view addiction any differently than run of the mill poor choices. Or put another way – if we accept that addiction is a disease then we should see these other poor choices as diseases too. Did you end up marrying a guy who cheated on his previous wife with you? Your unhappy years of marriage and eventual divorce are the result of a disease. Did you obtain obedience by beating your children constantly as they were growing up? Now when they grow up, disown you, and leave you to die alone, this too is the result of a disease. Have you watched the clock at work every day, taken as many breaks as possible, and never put in an extra ounce of effort? The fact that you didn’t get the promotion or raise you wanted is the result of a disease.
Trading the future for quick results or immediate rewards isn’t a disease, it’s a poor choice. Some characterize it as the result of immaturity. I think that fits quite well. We don’t come into this world knowing how to make good choices, nor are adolescents known for their foresight and long-term planning. Such skills are learned as the mind develops and our thinking deepens. If the tendency to value immediate rewards over long-term rewards is a disease, then we’re all born diseased.
Diseased or Bad?
That was gonna be the end of this piece, but it all raises another point which must be addressed. There’s this idea, this false dichotomy, that people with addictions are either diseased or “bad”. The part about them being “bad” is portrayed as a constant or fundamental part of their existence – that they are bad down to the core. I reject such a dichotomy. To make some bad decisions or mistakes is exactly that – it doesn’t mean you’re constitutionally bad/evil and incapable of making better decisions. But then again, I see people as complex creatures capable of growth, change, and amazing things. These addiction scientists see people as mere animals. If anything dooms someone as bad to their core, it’s the notion that their genes or an incurable disease is responsible for their bad decisions. It’s far more open-minded and compassionate to view addiction as a pattern of bad choices, because bad choices can be changed – genes cannot.