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Addiction & Treatment

Neuroplasticity and Addiction

The previous discussion of "conditioned responses," explains the early stage of neuroplastic change. As humans, and other animals, repeatedly making the same decision when faced with a specific experience or circumstance, and the brain is conditioned to respond to that specific experience or circumstance with the same decision made previously for that specific experience or circumstance. However, this conditioning is not a fait accompli, i.e. prior to the actualization of the decision the mind can change its decision. But based on probability the conditioned response will prevail for a specific experience or circumstance. The repetition of a conditioned response, over time, will eventually cause the brain to set up more efficient neuronal pathways to accommodate the repetitious decision. This accommodation is neuroplasticity, i.e. "neurons that fire together wire together," which is known as Hebb’s Law. This associative learning was first described in 1949 by the Donald O. Hebb, a Canadian psychologist. Here’s how the 13th Edition explains neuroplasticity in Chapter 7, The Science of Personal Change:

"Recent research on neuroplasticity (the brain’s plastic or physically adaptable nature) seems to confirm that the thoughts of the mind direct the activity of the brain and actually cause this supercomputer to physically rewire itself to function more efficiently.

Neuroplasticity is the brain’s natural ability to physically alter itself to accommodate the instructions provided by the mind. It explains how activities of the mind actually affect the brain’s physical structure; i.e. repetitive thoughts rewire the brain’s neuronal structures. The fact is that your brain is continuously adapting to external circumstances and new decisions, and subsequently accommodates certain brain tissue real estate as a result. Your brain is in a constant state of change.

As you think (with your mind) on any topic in a repetitive manner, the brain activity adjusts, making that thought pattern process more efficient, and thus more easily habituated and repeated the next time. Sounds reasonable and it is. It’s the scientific understanding of the learning process. In the same way that a computer dedicates more processing power to those applications that get the most use, the human brain dedicates more physical brain real estate to process thoughts and activities to which you pay the most attention. The brain couldn’t care less about what the thoughts are, because the brain does not think (or "care," or "feel"). The brain simply processes thoughts given to it by the thinker, the mind (which does the "caring" and "feeling").

Imagine a computer that is driven by very complex and emotionally driven software. The software is the mind, while the physical hardware that processes that software is the brain. Does a metallic motherboard and hard drive care whether it runs a basic series of software programs or more complex ones? Of course, it doesn’t. It simply does what it is told to do. But if the computer hardware is designed well, the processor will prioritize the information, recalculate the functions it is being asked to perform to make them faster and use less power, and shelve those functions not being used at that time. It stores those functions away for later use if needed. Now multiply the storage capabilities almost infinitely, make the hardware able to problem-solve with amazing, blinding speed, and create the greatest software program yet to be developed in the known universe, and you have just created the mind and the brain of a human being... YOU!

Your computer hardware (your brain) has been customized to carry out those thoughts and choices you’ve repeated most often. Let us repeat that: your brain has been customized to carry out those thoughts and choices you’ve repeated most often. It’s on the ready, able to jump into the previous processing routines and access your most referenced data in an instant. Brain tissue is genetically geared towards adapting to the most repetitious and motivated thoughts and activities given to it by the mind. Science confirms this.

Emerging research over the past few decades has shown that the human brain is in fact plastic (an adaptable, always changing organ) throughout one’s entire life. (Doidge, 2007; Schwartz & Begley, 2003) Every experience you have reshapes and rewires your brain, every day of your life, customizing it to better process those thoughts and actions to which you give the most focus on a day-to-day basis. Here are just a few examples which science has confirmed. If you practice playing a musical instrument often, your brain adjusts to dedicate more area and activity to playing music. (Gaser & Schlaug, 2003) If you are a taxi driver driving the streets of large city, your brain dedicates more area to storing and processing maps. (McGuire, et. al., 2000) And, if you practice using substances as your main source of happiness, your brain adjusts to process your thoughts of using substances more efficiently, too. Practice, literally, makes perfect, as your brain creates new and improved pathways to allow your most frequently chosen thoughts to pass through and go into action faster and faster each time you repeat them. You think, then physically act and finally become what you think!

Quite simply stated, you feel addicted to substances and other behaviors for many reasons, but for the most part it is because your brain adapts to motivated, repetitious behaviors. It learns and provides a more efficient platform to repeat your desires more easily each time. You become very good at getting drunk and/or high, or any activity you are motivated to perform repeatedly.

Numerous studies have shown that substance users most frequently quit using by virtue of their own neuroplastic power; in other words they think their way to new goals and values that do not include substance use. (Schwartz & Begley, 2002) The recovery society ignores this simple but incredibly powerful fact. The brain being changeable explains many things. It explains why people are able to adapt, and just as important, how and why humans can get stuck and feel as if they are victims of an inexplicable fate. The next statement is vital to understand: neuroplasticity cuts both ways; the physical brain can equally become a slave to positive thought or a slave to negative thought; you get to choose which one; you always have and always will."

For a presentation of the entire 13th Edition text, please click here.

In summary, then, like all other claimed causes, habituation and neuroplasticity do not cause excessive drug and/or alcohol use. Habituation is the process that accommodates excessive drug and/or alcohol use through neuroplasticity and habituated thought. Habituation occurs on two levels: in the mind and in the brain. In the mind, the science of habit is habituated thought; in fact we choose these mental habits. In the brain, the science of habit is neuroplasticity. The 13th Edition did not specifically address the process of habituated thought in great depth, but did explain the effects of neuroplasticity. Furthermore, neuroplasticity was found to be so significant in the development of habitual, excessive drug and/or alcohol use and in the solution for habitual, excessive drug and/or alcohol use, neuroplasticity is prominently displayed on the cover of the 13th Edition. It describes the 13th Edition this way: "The Definitive Guide to Self-Directed Neuroplastic Change." Still and in retrospect, it is clear that the discussions of causes for excessive drug and/or alcohol use and neuroplasticity have nothing to do with one another. So once again, the researchers needed to forge on.

Neuroplasticity is present in every human being and maybe in other animals that exhibit habitual behavior(s). Thus neuroplasticity, i.e. habituation, is not unique to people who use drugs and/or alcohol, excessively. Nor is neuroplasticity causal in and of itself — it merely is a recording of the mental thoughts and mental habits individuals choose for themselves. Thusly, the researchers were confronted with finding the cause of thought, or better yet, why we choose what we choose; or yet again, what motivates our base thoughts and drives us as causal mind-based beings.