In a world where the Dr. Drew-like rehab shows flood the airwaves with visuals of the craziness of chemical imbalances, America has become inundated with the perils of drugs and alcohol. Certainly, the pain is horrible for those suffering and their loved ones. But from a neuroscience angle, I am most curious about what predisposes a brain to be susceptible to such loss of control and disorganization neurologically.

When we hear this word “predisposition,” what do we think of first? The answer: genes. That is, talk of genetic predisposition fills the dialogue space around discovering the biological markers for why people develop an addictive disorder. And while there is for sure genetic predispositions, what I am going to shed light on here are fundamental “brain predispositions” that make one vulnerable to develop irrational behavior around a substance. To clarify, here is what I am not talking about when I allude to “brain dispositions”:

  • Something fixable by cognitive behavioral therapy
  • Psychopathology
  • Mental/Mind-related constructs

You may be thinking, “Well, if it is not these things, what the heck are you talking about Dr. Fleming?” What I am alluding to is a framework of wiring default patterns that structure thinking itself, that we all have in us and that affects our decision making. And much of this stuff is cutting-edge knowledge. Did you know that 80 percent of the knowledge about the brain discovered before 1995 has now been proven false? That’s how new of a frontier this knowledge is and with that newness comes a need to teach people about the brain from the ground floor up, so we can better discern what are addiction-based oddities of behavior from what are merely neuro-irrationalities inherent in us all.

So lets take a look at some characteristics of the “normal irrational brain” to better inform us all, addicts and nonaddicts alike, in understanding human behavior.

  • The brain makes decisions through emotions not through rational thought. The notion that the perfect normal brain is “rational” is a myth. Sorry, Aristotle. Neuroscientist researcher Antonio Damasio proved this by taking people who lost the ability to have emotions and put them through regular every day decision-making tasks. They were not even able to initiate the task. Many people were left staring at toothbrush with toothpaste on it forever. Emotions matter and the trick is to harness them for a purposed direction
  • The brain does not multitask. You hear many traumatic brain injury patients get frustrated in their cognitive rehabilitation because they cant quite “get back to normal.” In my coaching of these individuals, I have always found it hard to re-teach them what are recycled old beliefs seemingly pulling them towards a faulty vision of renewal, and what is the truth. Can’t blame them, for non-brain injured people are deluded as well when it comes to the notion that we will all get more done in this productivity-centered world if we can figure out how to do more things at the same time. This is a myth. There is a larger hit to consciousness than we think when we attempt to do this and we perceptively miss a lot more than we realize.
  • The brain is a pattern maker, not truth maker. The brain seeks what is known and makes variants of that seem like innovative progress to us all. It is why so few of us proceed into some panacea of enlightenment in this world. The brain doesn’t want to take the trip with us, but it wants to tell you its interested and will, as soon as it can, find its airline ticket :) But it never does. This is a key point in recovery, for being fully recovered may mean more to reduce one’s level of illusions and mental addictions by being more aware – not by being radically removed from them completely.

Together these three “brain points” are essential for addicts and their caregivers to keep in mind, so as to better benchmark reality and progress. It may be a relief to the addict to hear that the true goal is not to eradicate the addiction, but rather the meta-addiction underneath that is driving a purely rational life after recovery. Good luck. Non-addicts haven’t found that place either.

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