“Until recently, it was generally assumed that if we wanted something, it was because we liked it. But science is now questioning that idea – and pointing the way to a possible cure for addiction,” wrote the BBC’s David Edmonds.
Edmonds describes experiments that confirm that craving or wanting is largely driven by the mammalian brain’s reward system using the neurotransmitter dopamine. However, the research indicates that wanting is different from liking:
“The most startling evidence that the dopamine system fires wanting, and not liking, comes once again from the unfortunate laboratory rat. In one experiment, [professor of biopsychology and neuroscience at the University of Michigan] Kent Berridge attached a little metal stick to the rat cage that, when touched, delivered a minor electric shock. A normal rat learns, after one or two touches, to stay well away from the stick. But by activating the rat’s dopamine system, Berridge was able to make the rodent become engrossed by the stick. It would approach it, sniff it, nuzzle it, touch it with its paw or nose. And even after the minor shock was received, it would return time after time within a five- or 10-minute period, before the experiment was stopped.”
In other words, the craving continued, even intensified, despite the traumatic negative consequences.
In her influential book Unbroken Brain, author Maia Szalavitz also noted the distinction between wanting and liking. “Research now suggests that there are at least two distinct varieties of pleasure, which are chemically and psychologically quite different in terms of their effects on motivation. These types were originally characterized by psychiatrist Donald Klein as the ‘pleasures of the hunt’ and the ‘pleasures of the feast.’ […] As the phrase suggests, the pleasures of the hunt are the thrill of the chase: excitement, desire, stimulation, intent, sense of power, and confidence in being able to seek and get what you want. In contrast, the pleasures of the feast are those of satisfaction, comfort, relaxation, attainment, and sedation.”
For Szalavitz that means there are two different kinds of substance users. “As a drug user, you might distinguish between stimulants like cocaine and methamphetamine, which imitate the hunt—and depressants like heroin, which mimic the feast.”
In The Craving Mind, psychiatrist and mindfulness expert Judson Brewer made the point that neither the hunt nor the feast will ultimately satisfy, trapping some people in a cycle of addiction. People frequently mistake excitement (wanting) for happiness, “behavior (indulgence in sensual pleasure) leads to reward (enjoyment), which sets up the process for its repetition (craving)…We have conditioned ourselves to deal with stress in ways that ultimately perpetuate it rather than release us from it.”
This tragic paradox is the core dilemma of the disorder. “Addiction, then, is a coping style that becomes maladaptive when the behavior persists despite ongoing negative consequences,” wrote Szalavitz in Unbroken Brain.
For a person with addiction, “wanting becomes detached from liking,” concluded David Edmonds. “The dopamine system learns that certain cues – such as the sight of a coffee machine – can bring rewards. Somehow, in ways that are not fully understood, the dopamine system for the addict becomes sensitized. The wanting never goes away, and is triggered by numerous cues.” People with addiction “may find their urge to take drugs sparked by a syringe, a spoon, even a party, or being on a street corner.”
In addiction treatment, patients learn to understand this neurological mechanism and explore the underlying drivers for their substance use disorder because they were not hunting for pleasure but for psychological relief.
Treatment and recovery can be a difficult process at times because the wanting never really disappears. People with addiction can get triggered years into their recovery. That makes them “extremely vulnerable to relapse,” warns Edmonds. “They want to take the drugs again, even if the drugs give them little or no pleasure.”
If you, a family member, or a friend are struggling with addiction and/or mental health, Recovery Ways wants to help. We are dually licensed to treat mental health disorders and addiction. Our admissions coordinators can recommend a plan of action, suggest an interventionist, or speak with your loved one. For more information, please call us at (888) 988-5217.