“The human brain is the most complex organ in our body and is characterized by a unique ability called neuroplasticity,” writes Maria Mavrikaki, Ph.D., on the Harvard Health Blog. “Neuroplasticity refers to our brain’s ability to change and adapt in its structural and functional levels in response to experience. Neuroplasticity makes it possible for us to learn new languages, solve complex mathematical problems, acquire technical skills, and perform challenging athletic skills, which are all positive and advantageous for us. However, neuroplasticity is not beneficial if we develop non-advantageous learned behaviors. One example of non-advantageous learning is habitual drug misuse that can lead to addiction.”
In Maia Szalavitz’s book, Unbroken Brain, she argued that a better way to understand addiction is to view it more as a developmental disorder than a brain disease. In an interview with Gizmodo, Szalavitz explained:
“When I say that addiction is a learning disorder, I don’t mean that it is any less medical. Addiction cannot happen without learning, because learning shapes values over the course of development. If you don’t learn that the drug comforts you or creates pleasure, you cannot become addicted. So on a very basic level, addiction clearly involves an aberrant form of learning.”
This aberrant form of learning engages the brain’s reward cycle which reinforces pleasurable experiences and inhibits painful ones. For obvious reasons, this is a valuable evolutionary skill that has served Homo sapiens well for most of the last 200,000 years. Unfortunately, this kind of operant conditioning does not handle heroin or cocaine well. These artificially concentrated substances dramatically overstimulate the reward cycle in the brain, causing potentially dangerous problems that run counter to the original purpose of the reward cycle.
Aberrant conditioning results in the individual trying to replicate a euphoric experience over and over again despite increasingly negative consequences for body and mind. Neuroplasticity helps establish a dangerous new habit loop in the limbic system that will be hard to control by the neocortex, the part of the brain responsible for rational analysis and decision making.
A trap is set by substances evolution has not prepared us for.
“Our first decision to use a drug may be triggered by curiosity, circumstances, personality, and stressful life events,” explains Maria Mavrikaki. “This first drug exposure increases the release of a molecule (neurotransmitter) called dopamine, which conveys the feeling of reward. The increased changes in dopamine levels in the brain reward system can lead to further neuroplasticity following repeated exposure to drugs of abuse; these neuroplasticity changes are also fundamental characteristics of learning. Experience-dependent learning, including repeated drug use, might increase or decrease the transmission of signals between neurons. Neuroplasticity in the brain’s reward system following repeated drug use leads to more habitual and (in vulnerable people) more compulsive drug use, where people ignore the negative consequences. Thus, repeated exposure to drugs of abuse creates experience-dependent learning and related brain changes, which can lead to maladaptive patterns of drug use.”
Our brain’s changeable nature suggests we can change our behavior throughout our lives by learning new skills and habits. In The Power of Habit, Charles Duhigg suggests that habit loops once learned cannot be undone, only reprogrammed. That is how people with addiction can be triggered many years into their recovery by particular circumstances once connected with their substance use unless they have acquired new skills to counter those triggers.
Author Mavrikaki says, “Learning models suggest pursuing counseling or psychotherapy, including approaches such as cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT), can help a person modify their habits. “It utilizes neuroplasticity,” says Mavrikaki. “Scientific evidence suggests that CBT, alone or in combination with other treatment strategies, can be effective intervention for substance use disorders.”
This struggle to modify unhealthy habits that may never fully disappear makes recovery a lifelong pursuit and addiction a complex condition requiring treatment on multiple levels over a considerable time span.