Can all behaviour be understood as addiction?
I've talked a lot about dopamine recently, the “reward chemical” released in the brain when goals are achieved, or nearly achieved. All behaviours involve this mechanism – the decision centre (orbit-frontal cortex) and the pleasure centre (nucleus accumbens) form the basis of the biological circuit from which recurrent behaviours are generated. Since these are the same brain regions involved in addiction, is all behaviour addiction, on one scale or another?
Let me offer a disclaimer before I continue. Despite my interest in neurobiological explanations, I am not a behaviourist. Behaviourism claims that all forms of behaviour are explainable without recourse to concepts such as mind. I do not believe the evidence supports this claim. In fact, since language is clearly capable of altering behaviour, and the constructs of language are (I claim) part of what we consider the mind, I believe such assertions are void. Both hypnosis and related forms such as ritual magic and neuro-linguistic programming show that the contents of the mind can radically alter behaviour (not to mention “reality”!). It is important to remember that identifying the substructure of behaviour does not mean that these biological elements determine behaviour, just that they describe the underlying functionality.
What this question breaks down to is a language distinction between “behaviour” and “addiction”, which we can put another way: what is addiction? Putting aside physiological addiction, psychological addiction is another term for compulsion. Biologically speaking, a compulsion occurs when the decision centre overwhelmingly pushes for a particular outcome – that is, when a big hit dopamine has been attained in the past, the decision centre (which is closely tied to the pleasure centre) pushes for more of the same. This is why people become “addicted” to soap operas, videogames, gambling and so forth, any why we “can't put down” a book because “we have to know what happens next”.
And yet, the same neurobiological events occur when we fall in love, when we want to see our friends, when we go to aid someone... are these compulsive behaviours? To some extent they can be. But there are far more chemicals at work than just dopamine in these scenarios, and that creates considerable blurring of the lines. We compulsively put another coin in the slot machine because the decision centre assesses “it could payout at any time” (although of course, those who tend towards the Rational temperament – the dominance of the decision centre – tend to have a model of the world which denies this conclusion, and thus become unable to enjoy many forms of gambling). But when we impulsively decide to leap to someone's aid, the decision centre is not the most active voice in our biological heads – the force of compassion is not rooted in “addiction”, even though it is rewarding and therefore trips similar mechanisms as well.
Compulsive behaviours (psychological “addiction”) occur when the mind is unable or unwilling to resist the desire to act that the decision centre is demanding. The mind can overrule this impulse – but it has to have good reason to do so. Thus if our friends or family convince us we have a gambling habit, we are able to temper the compulsive need to wager by our sense of duty to our community – ironically, we create a conflict in the decision centre between one reward (winning) and another (pride). Support groups similarly attack these problems by creating a community to act as a counterbalance.
Compulsive behaviours come into being principally in two ways: to combat pain, or via the apparent innocence of the action. In the case of the former, pain can be physical or emotional: the serotonin crash of loneliness, in particular, leaves people vulnerable to all manner of “addictions” – anything to drown out that sense of abandonment and emptiness. This has become endemic in modern societies for various reasons. In the case of the latter, when a particular activity is either neutral or positive it can be difficult to balance against it, and thus those prone to compulsive behaviour fall into behavioural ruts. Someone who compulsively washes their hands, for instance, is acting in part out of a rationalised need to reduce the risk of infection – that motive is valid, it is only the rate of incidence which becomes excessive, and this is hard to balance out unless the individual can see or be shown how this is negatively affecting them.
Thus, even if we accept the simplification that “all behaviour is addiction” it would be fairer to say that “all behaviour results from competition between addictions” (but remember, this is a gross simplification of the facts of the matter). The only way to combat an “addiction” is with another “addiction”– one can overcome dependence on narcotics by creating dependence upon community, one can overcome dependence on massively multiplayer games (with their heady cocktail of game rewards and illusory community) in similar ways. Indeed, I see little difference between (say) a marijuana habit and a World of Warcraft habit... introverts are just as at risk for “addiction” from one as the other, although cultural hostility to “drugs” may serve as a better defence against the former than the latter. (But note, I do not believe that either of these “addictions” is necessarily disastrous, and certainly neither represent anything close to the greatest social problem we face).
The technological profusion of the past century has created innumerable possibilities for “addiction”, while simultaneously our communities – our principle defence against excessive compulsion – have become eroded by the rise of urban living, an infrastructure obsession for cars, and (in many countries) the decline of local religious communities, which have arguably failed to adapt to the changing needs of society. There are an estimated 11 million heroin addicts in the world. There are 47 million McDonald's customers each day. There are more than 625 million car drivers. I find it curious that only the first of these numbers causes significant concern.