Addiction and the Human Brain
By Michael de Glanville & Viola Edward….
Understanding the principal functions of the human brain makes it easier to see how we, as a conscious and intelligent species, have been able to grow into the most powerful creatures on this planet. This power can be used in positive and negative ways, we can be amazingly creative and loving and we have also become the most destructive of the species. Understanding the functioning of the brain also gives us an insight as to why we are so prone to addictive behaviours. In the “Triune Brain” model, according to Dr. Paul D. Maclean, there is the original “Reptilian brain”, involved in behaviors of aggression, dominance and territoriality, the “Limbic System”, which is the instinctive inner core of the brain and the surrounding “Neo-Cortex”, the most recent brain structure, found uniquely in higher mammals specifically humans. The Neo-Cortex has logical and thinking capacities, conferring the ability for language, abstraction, planning, and perception.
Instinctive Limbic Functions
Our survival and successful propagation as a species over 200,000 years ago was probably due to the instinctive functioning of Limbic System. The subsequent development and enlargement of the Neo-Cortex areas then began to add the cognitive reasoning skills, which enabled us to make rational and logical choices. The Limbic system supports a variety of functions, including emotion, instinctive behaviour, motivation, long-term memory and olfaction. It appears to be primarily responsible for emotional life, and it has a great deal to do with the formation of memories. Concerning instinctive behavior, it initiates actions to ensure survival like eating and drinking, like sweating or shivering, also breathing while sleeping and not falling. It initiates actions to avoid pain (body damage is a threat to survival). It initiates actions to seek out pleasure, like being drawn out to the warmth of the sun, or in to the cooling water of a stream, like finding safe and comfortable sleeping places at night, like instinctive sexual mating (procreation ensures survival of the species). The Limbic System does not use reasoning. Feelings of guilt or remorse concerning the consequences of its actions are not a consideration.
The Limbic system has instinctive reactions to various sensations and perceptions. For the Limbic, life is very simple. Hungry? Then search for food. Thirsty? Then look for water. Perceiving Danger? Then run, or turn and fight. Uncomfortably hot? Start sweating. Getting cold? Begin shivering. Feeling Pain? (a physical threat to survival) move quickly away from the perceived source. Feeling bored or stressed? (discomfort) Seek sexual pleasure and mate. (Ensures species survival). The interbreeding human groups that had effective survival reactions lived longer than those with weak ones and so became more numerous, propagating the more effective system. (Darwinian theory of Evolution). With this dynamic of ‘survival of the fittest’, continuing since the emergence of the early humans, we can understand why our instinctive survival system still remains an important influence in our behaviour.
During this same period of our evolution, brain size continued to increase, developing into the Neo-Cortex area of the brain, which had cognitive (thinking) skills, higher reasoning capacities and was capable of rationalizing and making logical decisions. Creating plans for the future became possible, thereby greatly improving the effectiveness of the brain at making successful survival choices. Primitive tools and weapons were created and used for hunting and defense. Intelligent groups migrated to more fertile areas, where water was always available. They avoided extreme weather zones. However, none of this changed the reality that the slightest hesitation at a dangerous moment could be fatal, so the Limbic system continued to provide its rapid, instinctive survival decisions to good effect.
How we use Intelligence
As the brain developed this more powerful capacity to defend and survive, it also began to use those higher reasoning capacities to plan offensive actions aimed at increasing security, acquiring valuable resources and subjecting weaker, more primitive groups. The rational and logical actions of the cognitive Neo-Cortex gradually evolved beyond the primitive, instinctive survival actions of the Limbic. The behavior patterns became more intelligent, but also more aggressive and domineering. The state of today’s world is a good example of the power of this intelligence. We observe an overwhelming focus on domination, on being the most powerful. Entire nations are engaged in instinctive and destructive conflict with each other whilst simultaneously developing peaceful scientific progress and wonders of engineering. We have walked on the moon and we have also detonated nuclear bombs. Collectively, consciously and for material benefit, our global industries are contributing to devastating climatic and environmental changes. We have three minds. The human species has become the most powerful form of life on this planet, but look at the disaster that is being made of that responsibility. Our intelligence is a powerful asset, for good or for bad; it just depends on how we choose to use it.
Let us take a look at why our powerful ‘Three Mind,’ brain system has a weakness to addictive behaviour. There are many well-known addictions prevalent in society today, among them Nicotine, Alcohol, Drugs, Gambling, Shopping, Sexual addictions and Internet Gaming. For example, we shall consider the Sexual addiction to Internet Pornography. In parallel with most of the addictive behaviours, the addiction to porn is capable of destroying loving relationships, family structure and self-esteem. It brings with it deep feelings of secrecy and shame that are so toxic to the healthy mind.
The shock of pornography
Pornography problems commence early, when inquisitive children, usually aged only 8 to 12 years, playing on the Internet, come across highly explicit images of sexual intercourse and nudity. Parents are mostly unaware that this is taking place and also ignorant of the harmful consequences. Controlling children’s exposure to porn on the Internet is not easy and few parents will manage this responsibility effectively. This first visual experience is shocking and yet appeals to the latent sexuality in the child and to their fascination for things that adults try to keep secret. The images stir up strange and pleasurable feelings and there is also an intuitive awareness that this activity is a secret and not something to run and tell Mum about. “Muuum! I was on the Internet just now and do you know what I saw, there was a man and a woman with no clothes on and…” It just doesn’t happen does it? In fact, the opportunity for defusing this situation had already passed some time before, when no explicit and loving explanations about healthy sex were forthcoming from the parents. The visual memory of the sexual images impacts the child’s Limbic system and is stored as a pleasure along with other instinctive survival issues.
Neural Network Pathways
What happens next is the creation of a Neural Network Pathway. Whenever the child or teenager is feeling bored, lonely or tired, the Limbic system senses the discomfort; the ‘emotional pain’ and immediately the survival instincts pop up. The Limbic then moves to ‘avoid pain’ by searching for a pleasure. A stored pleasure activity is sexuality. ‘Sexuality relieves pain’ and is available by going (secretly) to an Internet pornography site. The confusing connection between good and bad (pleasure versus secret shame) is also stored in this memory. The voyeuristic hook-up between the pleasure and shame of the sexual images is re-encountered and enjoyed and the Neural Network Pathway begins to be created and reinforced as the experience of stimulation and satisfaction is repeated. The Limbic has classified the action, through its connection with sexuality, as ‘necessary for survival’ and so the reaction gets repeated many times over and this Pathway becomes a habitual behavior pattern and creates a craving, a template for returning over and over again to that particular action. This is the fundamental nature of the addiction. We are programmed by our instinctive survival system. We are ‘hard wired’ to react this way. The behavior quickly develops into an addiction.
Programmed to Survive?
The dynamic of this process is essentially the same when we consider how people become addicted to smoking, drinking, drug taking and gambling. Various attempts have been made by society to curb these addictions, like or contemporary printing of ‘death warnings’ on cigarette packets, declaring the 1920’s Prohibition in the USA, making the sale and possession of drugs illegal and punished by imprisonment, none of which have come close to healing the causes of the addictions. We are astonished to see people with lung cancer continuing to smoke. Why do alcoholics continue to drink when their lives are falling apart? They are all simply following a template of survival actions programmed by the Limbic Brain and this ‘hard-wired’ template is very difficult for us to erase.
Next week we shall be continuing in more detail with Addiction to Internet Pornography…
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About Viola & Michael.
Viola came to Cyprus from Venezuela in 2002 to join Michael who was born on the Island and returned from France in 1999. Viola and Michael are both trained therapists in Breathwork and they founded Kayana Ltd in 2003. Viola specialises in Relationship Coaching, Business Consulting and Colour and Image. Michael has an Engineering background and specialises in Massage and Watsu.