Understanding the brain is of course essential to developing treatments for devastating illnesses like schizophrenia or Parkinson’s. More abstractly but no less compelling, the functioning of the brain is intimately tied to our sense of self, our identity, our memories and aspirations.
But the excitement to explore the brain has spawned a new fixation that my colleague Scott Lilienfeld and I callneurocentrism – the view that human behavior can be best explained by looking solely or primarily at the brain. …
Sometimes the neural level of explanation is appropriate. When scientists develop diagnostic tests or a medications for, say, Alzheimer’s disease, they investigate the hallmarks of the condition: amyloid plaques that disrupt communication between neurons, and neurofibrillary tangles that degrade them.
Other times, a neural explanation can lead us astray. In my own field of addiction psychiatry, neurocentrism is ascendant – and not for the better. Thanks to heavy promotion by the National Institute on Drug Abuse, part of the National Institutes of Health, addiction has been labeled a “brain disease.”
The logic for this designation, as explained by former director Alan I. Leshner, is that “addiction is tied to changes in brain structure and function.” True enough, repeated use of drugs such as heroin, cocaine, and alcohol the neural circuits that mediate the experience of pleasure, motivation, memory, inhibition, and planning – modifications that we can often see on brain scans.
The critical question, though, is whether this neural disruption proves that the addict’s behavior is involuntary and that he is incapable of self-control. It does not.
Take the case of actor Robert Downey, Jr., whose name was once synonymous with celebrity addiction. He said, “It’s like I have a loaded gun in my mouth and my finger’s on the trigger, and I like the taste of gunmetal.” Downey went though episodes of rehabilitation and then relapse, but ultimately decided, while in throes addiction, to change his life.
The neurocentric model leaves the addicted person (Downey, in this case) in the shadows. Yet to treat addicts and guide policy, it is important to understand how addicts think. It is theminds of addicts that contain the stories of how addiction happens, why they continue to use, and, if they decide to stop, how they manage. The answers can’t be divined from an examination of his brain, no matter how sophisticated the probe. …
The mind is the most interesting thing the brain does. Show me a mind without a brain and I’ll change my mind. 😉 The mind and the stories that make a person’s personality, including the thoughts and memories that cause behaviors are stored mostly in the brain. While it is currently true that adjusting key memories can’t be done yet at the level of the brain because we don’t have the technology or the skill to make the changes needed, I believe we will one day.
Key memory reprogramming is what really works, eventually, with CBT, rehab, self hypnosis, etc. It works when a new story overlays and upgrades an existing memory that is a trigger for the addictive behavior. You change the person’s identity. This can be done by having someone act out replacement behaviors and attach new rewards. Imagining and acting are real experiencing for the brain. The ancients in their Mystery Schools knew this and taught this way, by having initiates act out lessons. Modern religion still does this with ritual, but not as much as in the past. Now we read passively instead of actively visualizing or taking part in a memory repair play.
When reprogramming, be sure to include deep relaxation and recuperation as a reward! Getting enough sleep should be set up as one of the person’s top 10 motivators.