Now that the medical community understands that addiction is a disease, many researchers have been exploring its biological origins. Though few drug rehab patients would claim that substance abuse has improved their lives, the process of habit formation may have actually had evolutionary advantages. If the stigmatization of addicts is ever going to end – and if people with drug problems are going to get the help they need – then more laypeople need to understand the science of addiction.
Rewards and Cravings
Most human behaviors are regulated by dopamine – the hormone which affects mood, sense of well-being, and cravings. Whenever a person engages in a pleasurable activity, be it eating, sex, or even socializing, their brains release certain amounts of dopamine into their blood. This ultimately leads to a sense of euphoria, which consciously and subconsciously compels a person to repeat a given behavior.
The dopamine response is the reason why people are compelled to do things which are healthy and necessary for survival. It makes us want to eat foods rich in sugar, fat, and salt – essential nutrients which were rare in preindustrial society. It also causes us to reproduce, make friends, and form cooperative communities. Overall, the brain’s system of reward and cravings may be the reason why many species have survived as long as they have.
Hijacking the Dopamine Pathway
Unfortunately, the brain’s feedback system can easily be “hijacked.” There are innumerable sources of overstimulation in the modern world, including electronics, processed food, and worst of all – narcotics. Neurological studies have shown that most pleasurable activities increase dopamine concentrations by five, ten, or even twenty-fold. However, powerful drugs like heroin and cocaine can raise it one hundred-fold or more.
Such incredible feelings of euphoria lead to equally massive cravings. Despite the obvious dangers of drugs, people become hooked on getting high – and normal stimuli simply cannot produce the same effects. Addicts may understand the harm they’re doing to themselves, but their bodies’ feedback mechanisms compel them to seek the unmatchable sensations of drugs and alcohol.
For those who are still skeptical of the evolutionary basis of drug cravings, food addiction is an even more compelling example. The propensity to overeat and store body fat was at one point an advantage, as heavier individuals had more energy to sustain themselves in times of shortage. Now, however, agriculture and processing have provided us with an abundance of delicious and addictive food. The mechanisms which might have compelled an early human to indulge in ripe fruit now cause people to eat sugar and starch in massive quantities. This phenomenon is even seen infants – people who clearly did not “choose” to become addicted.
There may also be a social basis for the development of addiction. Psychological studies have shown that people tend to mimic the behaviors of those around them, even when those behaviors seem senseless or destructive. This might explain why so many people become alcoholics in societies that condone excessive drinking. It may also be the reason why teens succumb to peer pressure and get hooked on marijuana and cigarettes.
Addiction is terrible disease, but there are still effective treatments for those who seek help. If you’re struggling with drugs or alcohol, call the number at the top of your screen for a toll-free, confidential consultation. Our dedicated counselors can help you get started on a drug rehab program that will have you back on your feet and on the road to recovery.