Tuesday, February 07, 2017


Finnegan, Bunny, Duckie, Tuxie

If a cat does something twice, or possibly three times, at the same time in the same way, it’s not just a habit — it’s a requirement.  So because I sometimes wake up at 4AM, which is golden dawn in summer but dark and frozen in winter, there is already a row of cats along the side of the bed, waiting for me to twitch or sigh so they can start demanding breakfast.  This appears to be inextinguishable, in the lingo of operant conditioning.  If I refuse to get up and instead sleep with the covers over my head for another hour, they’ll still be there, waiting.  Their strategy works on mice, so clearly it is endorsed by survival.  I do benefit from their insistence on structure.

A series of articles, including one in Aeon, have appeared about habits as the entering wedge of addiction.Marc Lewis is a neuroscientist and recently retired professor of developmental psychology, at the University of Toronto from 1989 to 2010, and at Radboud University in the Netherlands from 2010 to 2016. His latest book is The Biology of Desire (2015). He lives in The Netherlands.”

The sequence might go like this:  Habit > Ritual > Compulsion > Triggers > Addiction

Recently the search for understanding of addiction in all its forms has begun exploring a kind of continuum like the one above that relates addiction to habit — considering it a brain feature, a structural change.  The continuum might begin with habit, which is often positive since you don’t have to think about it anymore, which frees space for other thoughts.  You just automatically do something that it’s good to repeat: maybe hygiene rituals, maybe a daily schedule.  We know about religious prayer, both Islamic and Catholic.  

Then might come compulsion, the feeling that it MUST be done.  Lewis feels that the view that “addiction ‘hijacks the brain’, replacing the capacity for choice and self-control with an unremitting compulsion to drink or use drugs” comes from “medicalizing” addiction….

”The strange marriage between support groups such as Alcoholics Anonymous (AA) and institutional care . . .became the dominant approach to addiction throughout the Western world in the 1990s – the so-called decade of the brain – largely due to the discovery of brain changes that correspond with addiction, some of them long-lasting if not permanent.”

Lewis suggests “The implication that addicts do the things they do because they are ill, not because they are weak, self-indulgent, spineless pariahs (a fairly prevalent view in some quarters) also seemed to benefit addicts and their families.”

Lewis argues against all this.  “First of all, brain change alone isn’t evidence for brain disease. Brains are designed to change. That is their modus operandi. They change massively with child and adolescent development: roughly half the synapses in the cortex literally disappear between birth and adulthood. . . . Brains change with recovery from strokes or trauma and, most importantly, they change when people stop taking drugs. “

“Secondly, we now know that drugs don’t cause addiction. People become addicted to gambling, porn, sex, social media, gaming, shopping and of course food.”   “Brain changes in addiction also resemble those underlying sexual attraction and romantic love: the brain restructures itself, at least to an extent, when attraction runs high.”

“Addiction might be hard to give up because it is so deeply learned – or learned in urgent circumstances – while alternative means for arranging one’s life are not.”   “brain change [is] essential to learning addiction.”

Lewis “would term addiction a ‘habit of mind’ – a habit of thinking and feeling that sometimes gets expressed in behaviour.”

Here’s Lewis’ version of what happens in the brain connectome.  I’ve added emphasis throughout this post and quoted at length because it’s easy to be inaccurate when information is new.

“From a neural perspective, habits are patterns of synaptic activation that repeat, when connections among rapidly firing neurons fall into the same pattern over different occasions repeatedly. When a person thinks familiar thoughts or performs familiar actions, a vast number of synapses become activated in predictable – ie, habitual – configurations. Patterns of neural firing in one region become synchronised with patterns of firing in other regions, and that helps the participating synapses form these habitual configurations. Whether you call something a skill or a habit, it can become learned and entrenched only by virtue of repeating patterns of synaptic activation.

“With each repetition, activated synapses become reinforced or strengthened (due to modifications in the structure of each participating neuron), and alternative (less used) synapses become weakened or pruned. Meanwhile, active synapses give rise to the activation of other synapses with which they’re connected, and because synaptic connections between brain cells are almost always reciprocal, the reinforcing activation is returned. Thus, repeated patterns of neural activation are self-perpetuating and self-reinforcing: they form circuits or pathways with an increasing probability of ‘lighting up’ whenever certain cues or stimuli (or thoughts or memories) are encountered. In neuroplasticity researcher Siegrid Löwel’s summation of neuropsychologist Donald Hebb’s rule: ‘Cells that fire together, wire together.’”

Hebb’s rule comes up over and over again in these connectome discussions.  Mrs. Othus was the library teacher in my elementary school.  Her version was that the brain is a field with paths and that mental messengers create these paths by passing back and forth.  The more feet on the path, the more definite the path.  (She was making us memorize poems.)  Freud called the more troublesome versions of Hebb’s rule “repetition compulsion.”  You know it doesn’t work, but you think this time it will.  If you can’t change, or if the habit is destructive enough, you’ll be snuffed.

More optimistically, Leder points out that human habits settle into place; they are not prescribed in advance by our genes, or determined by the environment.”  An ecology is a settled dynamic in which compensations and adjustments keep the main elements in place.  But some of those stabilizing forces may be painful and destructive, an oppression internal or external.

“Depression, for example, involves a sense of loss and rejection that calls up ruminative thoughts, evaluative thoughts, whose very character tends to be self-deprecating. The more we examine ourselves, the more fault we see; and so the rejection, sadness and anxiety that go with it are amplified. 

“Anxiety, meanwhile, draws attention to threat. That is its direct evolutionary purpose. Thus anxiety disorders demonstrate one of the simplest and most brutal feedback cycles awaiting adolescents growing up in uncertain environments. The more anxiety, the more attention to what could go wrong, to the dangers implicit in the environment, and the risks behind every possibility. In turn, this kind of thinking thrums the strings of anxiety, creating a full-throated chorus of concern completely unwarranted by a more objective interpretation of events.”

Leder is optimistic about recovery from addiction because life goes on and new circumstances, forces, and abilities change the whole interaction that made the addiction work.  If that doesn’t happen, the seriously damaging problems are solved by death.  

My cat problem will be solved when the weather warms up enough for them to stay outside, both day and night.  At the moment the temp is zero and there is a lot of new snow.  

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