Religion in Science Fiction (5): Star Trek
BrainHex Beta

Behaviour as Addiction

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.


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I think there are pieces missing from this view. Why do I get up and go to work in the morning? Any dopamine payout for this behaviour compared to others will be at best delayed, at worst absent.

Peter: "I think there are pieces missing from this view"

Always. :) And this is a particularly stilted perspective I'm putting forward in this piece.

"Why do I get up and go to work in the morning?"

You are correct to assert that your decision centre is not bribing you to go to work with a dopamine hit upon arrival, but there is still a decision being made here... The reward of work is (when we are not fortunate enough to be doing intrinsically rewarding work!) the pay. You don't get your wages every day, but you do get your wages as a consequence of having gone to work.

Would you go to work if you knew you weren't going to get paid...? :)

The habit of going to work, I'm thus claiming, is rooted in the reward of periodic payment. But this too is a simplification: many people go to work for other reasons... the social rewards of the workplace, for instance, not to mention there are many people who have an intense fear of unemployment.

Robert Anton Wilson makes note that we are apt to confuse money with food, and I tend to agree with this sentiment. :)

Thanks for the comment!

I wouldn't call OCD behaviors an addiction. The reason OC's ritualize is to reduce anxiety, not because there is something inherently rewarding about the activity. I think the distinction needs to be made -- addictions can only result from excessive compulsion about an activity that was enjoyable, at least at first.

Gregory Bateson has made an interesting cybernetic model of addiction - he even defines addiction is strict cybernetic terms (i.e. hard science), and his model would certainly rule out the idea that all behavior is addiction. He explores the model in various essays, but it is the centerpiece of "The Cybernetics of 'self' - a theory of alcoholism" which you can find in "Steps to an Ecology of Mind".

I also remember seeing a table comparing the various 'street drugs' with each other, and amongst heroin, cocaine, alcohol etc. there was the 'control' entry 'trousers' (i.e. pants in the USA). The author sought to point out that it was not necessarily a bad thing to depend on something or to suffer withdrawal symptoms. (Imagine how you would get by if your trousers were forbidden/removed).

I recently read something David Brin wrote on the subject. You'll probably be interested:

just Scott: Well this is obviously a highly simplified perspective I'm putting here, so that has to be taken into consideration. But you say: "The reason OC's ritualize is to reduce anxiety, not because there is something inherently rewarding about the activity."

But the same could be said of other addictions... some drugs that people become dependent upon happen to escape from fear/anxiety. I don't think addiction necessarily has to encode the idea of something being pleasant... We can become addicted to all sorts of things, not all of which are enjoyable.

But you're right that I don't really touch upon the escape from fear versus the move towards reward in this piece, and that is a weakness of the position.

Brennan: I love the idea of treating trousers as an addiction. :) There is something of this in this piece when I reference cars, which is an idea found in Ivan Illich (that we have become culturally addicted to cars).

I think the idea that "all behaviour is addiction" will never work as a testable proposition, it is rather a perspective we can adopt to consider things (which is why this piece is called "Behaviour as Addiction" not "Behaviour is Addiction", if you see what I mean).

Bateson's Mind and Nature is on my reading list right now, for a future Philosophy of Mind serial - I'm looking forward to reading it.

chill: cheers for the link, but I couldn't get it to load for some reason. Sure you got it right?

Thanks for the comments!

It really depends. Sometimes when you find happiness in the thing you do, you tend to do it over and over but you can't call that addiction. I'm a gamer and I love playing World of Warcraft. I can spend half a day sitting in front of the PC with no complaints while playing it but then I know at some point I have a real life that I need to play..errr live ^^. It's not bad to do things that make you happy over and over but know your limits and the consequences. =)

wowgold: "know your limits and the consequences"

I think this is the key, isn't it? Even the most innocent of pastimes can become problematic if you let it take over.

The problem is, when an "addiction" takes over someone's life, they are often slow to notice. At first, it seems harmless, then, it starts to appear less harmless but the individual becomes defensive about it. Eventually, it's taken over completely.

As individuals, it can be hard to guard against this, which is why I suggest that community is the safest defence against "addiction".

Thanks for sharing your view!

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