Drugs Do Not Hijack The Brain

by Thaddeus Camlin. Psy.D.

Change happens slowly over time.  Gradually, habits develop and patterns of behavior establish routines.  Whether we are changing our eating habits, sleeping habits, work habits, love habits, or drinking habits, the change process is the same.  As behaviors develop into well-maintained patterns and habits, some self-regulatory control is compromised due to neurobiological adaptations – it’s harder to not add sugar to coffee for someone who always added sugar to coffee than it is for someone who only added sugar to coffee once.  Luckily, the brain of the coffee-sugar cross-fader has not been hijacked because drugs do not hijack the brain.

image of a ufo abduction to illustrate the absurd notion that drugs hijack the brainMyth: Drugs Hijack the Brain

Saying drugs hijack the brain is like filming a two year time lapse, then playing it back in 20 seconds and telling people the playback was in real time.  The myth that a single insufflation of cocaine kidnaps, abducts, imprisons, and otherwise absconds with our brain remains a hobgoblin wreaking havoc on decades of scientific evidence to the contrary.  The reality is that addiction develops through identifiable, verifiable, and reliable processes, and that overcoming addiction is achieved through similarly identifiable, verifiable, and reliable processes.

Truth: The Principles of Behavior Modification Apply to Substance Use, Addiction, and Recovery

Addiction develops through a combination of conditioning, stimulus generalization, and reinforcement.  In response to environmental stimuli most people choose to experiment with some substances.  Some who experiment with substances have a positive experience (reward), and repeat the behavior.  If behavior is rewarded, some choose to engage in the same behavior in response to additional stimuli (stimulus generalization).  If a behavior in response to a wider array of stimuli continues to generate positive experiences, the behavior is increasingly reinforced, sometimes rising to the level of addiction.

Thus, to overcome addiction one must engage in counterconditioning, stimulus control, and reinforcement management.  Counterconditioning can include finding alternatives to addictive behaviors, especially in high-risk situations.  Stimulus control can include managing or avoiding situations that cue engagement in an addictive behavior (e.g. planning refusals at a company function, or not going to my favorite bar for awhile).  Reinforcement management involves developing and implementing a system of rewards to reinforce disengagement from the addictive behavior – just like the addictive behavior was established through rewards, so too must disengagement be established via rewards.

The truth that addiction develops and heals through identifiable, reliable, and verifiable behavioral processes doesn’t make for sexy TV.  Hijackings, abductions, and dramatic robberies fit seamlessly into the Americana telepsyche trained to maintain a span of attention for no more than 22 minutes per ½ hour.  It is difficult for our culture to embrace the idea that addiction forms and heals slowly because our brains are not trained to see the world in a gradual, sustained manner.  It is no wonder that brains trained to have attention hijacked countless times throughout the day by commercial breaks and smartphone buzzes gravitate towards views that fit the conditioning endured.

Recovery is Slow-Moving, but There’s Good News

Brains raised in an attention economy are primed to swallow concepts of addiction based on chemical hooks that instantly hijack brains and 28-day resort-spa cures.  The reality is that both addiction and healing from addiction are slow moving, effortful, deliberate processes that usually take years to achieve.  The good news, however, is that most people experiment and don’t become addicted, and most people who do become addicted fully recover.  Now if you’ll excuse me, it’s been at least 17 minutes since I’ve checked my phone.