By Jim Gogek
A lot of people stigmatize addiction by talking about bad choices and free will. Folks in recovery and addiction treatment professionals have known for decades that free will can’t help an addict choose not to drink or drug, and now science shows why.
An excellent article published in 2009 in the journal Addiction entitled “The 10 most
important things known about addiction” tells how the decision to take the first drink or drug is actually pre-conscious in the addict’s brain, and exists well before the idea pops into conscious thought. Doug Sellman, professor of psychiatry and addiction medicine at the National Addiction Centre in New Zealand, talks about how drug-seeking behavior is launched in the nucleus accumbens, located in an evolutionary primitive region of the brain. This is the pleasure center that kicks off the craving of a drug (and alcohol is a drug), lighting up with a surge of electrochemical activity. This decision-making center is in a pre-conscious part of the brain, in the same area where hunger and thirst come from. It cues the conscious parts of the brain in the prefrontal cortex to start thinking about how taking a drink or smoking some crack might be a good idea. Usually, an impulse from the pre-conscious part of the brain takes place a half-second before the conscious thought. But in the addict’s brain, the lag time between pre-conscious impulse and conscious thought can take longer when it comes to drugs, and the impulse can be a lot more powerful. Sellman writes:
“…The usual disconnected human state of living consciously half a second behind what has already been ‘decided’ is exaggerated in people with addiction, because the initiation of drug-seeking behavior is engaging a well-worn pattern of learned compulsive behavior, overriding the ability to alter course when anticipated negative consequences are finally realized.”
In other words, an addict can have a ton of good intentions about not picking up the first drink or drug, but it won’t do any good. This same idea, by the way, was written in the book Alcoholics Anonymous in 1935. The alcoholic, it says, “will be absolutely unable to stop drinking on the basis of self-knowledge.” And in another place: “The alcoholic at certain times has no effective mental defense against the first drink.” Now we know why. The craving for a drink or a drug comes from a place deep down in the addict’s brain. By the time the addict starts consciously thinking about picking up a drink or drug, it may already be too late to stop it.