A couple of Q&As and a challenging essay on addiction and the brain

Here’s a brief Q&A hosted by a website called 52 Insights. It’s quite a spiffy site, with interesting authors and speakers presenting their views on popular culture, science, politics, and so forth. My piece is about my personal history, my book, habit versus willpower, and a bit about the War on Drugs.

Here’s a longer Q&A, done as a podcast, conducted and beautifully annotated by Barry Daniel for The Middle Way Society. This is a fascinating group in the UK that takes the Buddhist concept of “the middle way” and translates it into philosophical and practical ideas for thinking about and living in our own paradoxical era. My interview is, not surprisingly, entitled Why Addiction is Not a Disease.

The founder (I think) of the Middle Way Society, Robert Ellis, reviewed my book in an essay offering several unique insights into the role of the brain in overcoming addiction. This is where philosophy, neuroscience and addiction studies come together. Ellis says many nice things about my book, but he challenges my claim that addicts lose touch with some of the most critical functions of the left frontal cortex. Namely, the capacity to see one’s life as a linear progression, a trajectory or narrative, extending from past to present to future. I think that addicts have to rekindle that capacity before they can move themselves toward a future they choose for themselves. Ellis says I pay too much homage to the left hemisphere, and it’s really the right hemisphere that goes dim when people lose themselves to addiction.

What do you think? (See my reply for what I think.) The two hemispheres of the brain are responsible for fundamentally different human capacities. Which side of the brain needs to do push-ups to help us acquire the strength to overcome addiction?


12 thoughts on “A couple of Q&As and a challenging essay on addiction and the brain

  1. John Becker November 16, 2015 at 5:10 pm #

    “What side of the brain needs to do push-ups to help us acquire the strength to overcome addictions?” Both, of course, and while I don’t have sufficient knowledge of neuroscience to speak as specifically as either you, Marc, or Robert Ellis, I can certainly refer to the other book you guys are talking about, and it was you who recommended it to me: The Master and his Emissary: The Divided Brain and the Making of the Western World, by Iain McGilchrist. This author makes the point that what differs in the hemispheres is not what they do, but how they do it. The left is a predator and a laser beam, the right is holistic, mindful, and like a lantern. How I interpret this for our intents and purposes is that both sides do addictions: the left hunts highs, the right creates an addict identity, and both together facilitate the marvellously entire learning experience. Marvellously tragic.
    Interestingly, it’s the same difference with recovery. That is, in my view it’s all the same push-up. Addictions are the gravitationally assisted down and recovery is the muscular up. Now wouldn’t it be better to go from what’s in the brain to what the brain is in: a flesh and blood body, and a human culture. And instead of doing push-ups, let’s put on some music and start dancing.

    • Marc November 17, 2015 at 5:11 am #

      What a wonderful comment, John. It’s quite true what you say about the addict identity, and the identity change that comes with recovery. Identity is really the way we talk about ourselves to ourselves, but the selves that we are talking about are deeply distributed through the right hemisphere, and in fact everywhere else.

      You should really check out this Middle Way Society website. I think you’d love it.

      And I love your idea about dancing instead of doing push-ups. We certainly need joy, hope, and optimism in our retaliation to the gravity of addiction.

    • William Abbott November 18, 2015 at 10:34 am #

      Thanks for this Marc– its wonderful and Im going to share it with many

      Of course as you know well , I totally agree with what you say here – and in the book


      • Marc November 19, 2015 at 9:09 am #

        Thanks Bill. Obviously that’s good to hear.

  2. NN November 17, 2015 at 11:33 am #

    The exact link for the Ellis interview is


  3. Carlton November 17, 2015 at 2:36 pm #

    Marc, Thank You for posting this, it is a very well done and compelling podcast, and full of information.

    The fact that “learning”changes the brain and that the brain is is constantly pruning itself, could help in paving the way to a new Model for Addiction.

    For instance, if you use the common analogy of the brain-as-a-computer, this ultimately points to back to individual, i.e. the actual user of the computer.

    Say you love and want to work on a specific project. You begin modifying your computers layout, the apps, etc, so it is good at this project..,and this usually takes some time, and “evolves”.

    Now..If, and when the project is over, you will probably begin to modify it to the next project.

    But The Disease model suggests that once its been modified from the original “factory spec”,( what a person is born with), you will be stuck with that “alteration” for life.

    The choice model says you can always choose, but this does not take into account the two seperate things; LIKE and DESIRE.

    But , another possible model could be entertained with the understanding that LIKE/ DESIRE are different, and originate from the actual user of the computer, not the computer itself.

    You may DESIRE the setup of the a recent project, but you would LIKE to modify it to another project..but since you DESIRE the first setup, you don’t really GO THROUGH with the changes for the new setup.

    This could analogous to people that successfully abstain for 10, 20, 30, 40, years but the DESIRE is constantly there the whole time.

    From the blog here, there seems to be many people that once had the computer set up and modified for that one specific project, (i.e. the addiction).

    But it seems both heir likes AND desires changed.. and they are re-engaged fully with their current project and computer setup.

    Yes, you always have the freedom and choice to re-set-up and re-modify to that previous setup (i.e. re-depending on the addiction again),

    but if both the like AND desire have changed, there is neither the reason or the compulsion to do so.

    Thus, It is not a “struggle” anymore, nor is there a need to “control yourself” from re-setting and modifying the computer, when both the like and desire have changed.

    • Marc November 19, 2015 at 9:57 am #

      Carlton, This is an interesting analogy… But what if the brain isn’t much like a computer at all? What if logic is a recent acquisition, but the design of the brain is mostly geared to very immediate needs and desires? Maybe check out the Middle Way site…some of their articles on “embodiment” are really quite good. I think of the brain as something organic, interwoven stems, roots, and leaves….and so, of course, it grows and changes all on its own.

      • Carlton November 19, 2015 at 11:07 am #

        I apologize for the poor wording of that analogy. The focus was meant to be on the consideration of the entity that uses the brain… i.e., the possible origin of the feelings of Likes and Desires.

        These feelings could be lending themselves to “pruning” of the brain, that you mentioned in the pod-talk.

        To carry the “pruning” idea further, It could be that “non-pruning” of the brain can describe abstaining for years, yet constantly maintaining effort and energy to NOT return to the addiction.

        Whereas it is becoming apparent that a percentage of people that were addicted do not seem to be compelled anymore, and perhaps they have “let go” of a mind-set that Like/Desire create, and the “pruning” naturally continued or something..

        Yes, this is all speculation, but by looking back at the addiction and the recovery experience, speculation itself may help in understanding addiction.

        Your blog here, is the first time I have read of people talking openly about feeling recovered.

        I think the understanding of addiction will be greatly advanced when researchers view addiction in the opposite direction too, and reverse-engineer the addiction and recovery phenomena.

        They may do research to find out what happened to the percentage of addicts that no longer feel compelled.

        Thanks to you and this Blog, communication about actual recovery is occurring, and perhaps it will help the many generations to come.

  4. matt November 18, 2015 at 7:50 am #

    There’s a term for addiction you see a lot in the literature these days: hedonic homeostatic dysregulation. I think that captures my understanding as well as my personal experience with addiction. Brain out of balance. It takes time to rewire, balance neurochemistry and find the right combination of co-motivators to keep someone on track– meetings, yoga, knitting, meditation, coloring, or other pursuits that fell away because of the addiction. I just intuitively feel there is more at work than the machinations between hemispheres. Of course, I also intuitively felt a lot of things about substances and look where that got me…

  5. matt November 18, 2015 at 8:34 am #

    ….and the avoidance of extremes– the middle path– can’t be emphasized enough in recovery. There is fundamental understanding in Buddhism, and that is desire is the driver of human behavior. It is also the root poison. We are never satisfied. It drives both progress and suffering. We never have what we want because once we get it we move on to something else. I think the crusty old philosopher Schopenhauer called it the “groundless striving of the will”. The word in Pali is tanha. The closest word in English is desire, but I’m told it translates closer to something like “dissatisfaction.” Desire to have things the way we want them, and not the way we don’t want them. And this is constantly changing– along with everything else in the world. My addiction felt like this constant cycle of dissatisfaction. That’s why acceptance was key in my recovery…not just acceptance of my addiction, or my powerlessness or whatever….but that this is the way the world works, so I’d better suck it up and deal. Happily, of course.

    • Marc November 19, 2015 at 10:02 am #

      What a great way of putting it, Matt. I agree. Today I was reminded that everything we gain in life we lose…eventually. Sounds pessimistic, even tragic. But it actually helps you just be in the moment and EXPERIENCE IT. That’s almost impossible to do when you’re in active addiction. Both the getting it and the losing it propel you out of any kind of satisfaction with how things just are.

      • matt November 19, 2015 at 10:23 am #

        I actually find it comforting…after I reframed it and thought “How incredibly freeing.” If you can really embrace the fact that none of this…material, abstract or emotional… none of this means anything. It will all be gone sooner than we think, and that the only worth of this existence is what we make of it. If you can accept that, you can truly be happy.

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