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Approaching addiction as a learning disorder

Posted on 05-14-16 in Behavioral Health, Cognition, Substance Abuse

Approaching addiction as a learning disorder

It is nearly impossible to separate the idea of addiction from the mental image. Yes, people still slam heroin in shooting galleries, but many of today’s addicts resemble stock brokers, not Sid Vicious. Some argue it is the idea, not the reality, of addiction that relegates it to the criminal class. As this article will show, there is considerable merit to the concept of addiction being a misunderstood learning disorder.

Learning to crave

Maia Szalavitz writes for The Guardian. She believes addiction should be treated as a learning disorder and not a crime. Szalavitz knows of what she speaks. She was addicted to heroin and cocaine in her twenties. Her addiction robbed her of everything she held dear. In a recent post, Szalavitz explained her addiction as a learning disorder – one characterized by the failure to learn from punishment.

A few of Szalavitz’s arguments are tenuous at best. She says users learn what drugs make them feel better. Substance abuse circumvents rational thinking; it simply feeds the pleasure center. She equates craving a drug to knowing that one wants it. Again, give credit where credit is due. There isn’t a lot of cause and effect thinking that happens with addiction. There is cause and effect; it just happens at a baser level.

Attacking an immature brain

Szalavitz is more compelling when she compares addiction to other developmental disorders – attention deficit-hyperactivity disorder, dyslexia, autism, schizophrenia. Typically, these disorders manifest in adolescence or early adulthood, when the human brain is a swirling, developing mass. She notes 90 percent of addictions begin during late teens and early 20s. The human brain isn’t fully developed until age 25. Szalavitz says young people grapple with conflicting impulses. Sexual energy increases but it is not wholly rooted in pleasure. At the ripe age of 20 (even earlier), humans are hardwired to reproduce. While nature urges these individuals to procreate, society frowns on babies having babies.

Szalavitz notes this is not as innocuous as it may seem. She characterizes addiction as loving something even if it is detrimental to the individual. She notes parents can be subjected to harrowing experiences related to their children; but they never waiver. She compares this tenacity to someone who loves drugs. She believes addicts come to love (and hate) their addiction but they persist despite negative consequences because genuine love demands it.

Approaching addiction as a learning disorder

What is happening in the brain

In a Psychology Today article posted last year, Shahram Heshmat, professor of health economics of addiction at University of Illinois, takes a more scientific approach to the topic. The gist of Heshmat’s piece is that addiction is insidious for far more than the obvious reasons. It befuddles the addict – and those around him – by distorting his unconscious brain processes. This is the reason addicts persist in behavior detrimental to their health.

Rational individuals engage in a three-step process when making decisions, says Heshmat. They frame the problem, they assign values to available options and they choose. This plays out chemically in the brain by the release of dopamine. Also known as the pleasure chemical, dopamine activates the brain’s reward center. The amount of dopamine released is in proportion to the expected reward the choice will bring (all choices, regardless of the context, involve rewards) versus the actual reward the choice brings. In a normal functioning brain, this process becomes a learned behavior based on prior experiences. Heshmat says a brain on drugs fails to learn from experience.

Heroin, amphetamines and cocaine confound the brain’s reward center. They completely distort how the brain apportions dopamine. Instead, the pleasure center is rendered into a perpetual state of wanting. Addiction increases the need for drugs without the concomitant desire the drugs bring. Some individuals have genetic mutations that decrease the number of dopamine receptors in their brains. Heshmat says these individuals are more prone to addiction because they fail to learn from their mistakes. Not because they are resistant; they lack the proper faculties to do so.

A chronic condition

Heshmat concludes his piece on a cautionary note. As much as addiction advocates and some physicians would like to see addiction treated as a chronic disease like diabetes, they acknowledge diabetics do not rob liquor stores to feed their insulin habit. Addicts resort to unsavory behaviors in order to feed their perpetual want. Approaching addiction as a chronic disease has its merits but, says Heshmat, addicts must accept responsibility. He says individuals who assert some measure of control over their lives are able to change. Those who believe they have no control remain fixed in time.

Sovereign Health Group specializes in treating behavioral health problems. Our drug addiction treatment program treats the physical effects of addiction and explores the underlying thought processes that fuel it. We understand treatment is useless if it only fixes the body. Contact our helpline to learn more about our programs and our treatment philosophy.

About the author:

Darren Fraser is a content writer for Sovereign Health Group. He worked two and half years as reporter and researcher for The Yomiuri Shimbun until they realized he did not read, speak or write Japanese and fired him. Undeterred, he channels his love of research into unearthing stories that provide hope to those dealing with addiction and mental illness. Darren loves the Montreal Canadiens hockey club and horror films and would prefer to enjoy these from the comforts of his family’s farm in Quebec. For more information about this media, contact the author at