Addicts call the seductive pull for their drug, a craving. Scientists call it a cue. Non-addicts might call it a temptation. Whatever you call it, science has revealed what actually happens when we are experiencing these seductive pulls.
Initially, a craving will start with a stimulus. The stimulus (something that elicits a response) can either be internally generated (such as a thought) or externally generated (such as a seeing a beer bottle). This stimulus triggers a sequence of events within the brain which usually results in an external action (behavior).
Scientists understand that both thoughts and environmental cues actually boost dopamine (the “feel good” chemical) in the brain resulting in desire for more.
Dr. Childress, psychiatrist and researcher, used PET scans on participants to view neural activity. What she discovered was that when an addict experiences a craving, the brain releases a small burst of dopamine “similar to a small dose of the drug itself, that is why some people report tasting the drug in the back of their throats, even though they really haven’t taken any. ”
Dr Childress says that the trigger “is a primer, a seductive pull.” She goes on to say that the trigger that addicts experience actually give them “a small taste of the drug itself before they even get there.”1
What this means, is that the sight of a beer bottle to an alcoholic or the smell of cigarette smoke to a smoker, spikes dopamine in the addict’s brain, causing strong cravings and desire.
But in a very similar way, this happens to non-addicts too…
One study showed that just dangling a tasty piece of candy in front of a participant resulted in a reaction in the brain similar to what would happen when a bottle of alcohol is placed before an alcoholic.2
Similarly, viewing a pornographic image of a half nude woman spikes dopamine at remarkable levels. 3 Money, and the possibility of obtaining it, also spikes dopamine.4
What’s more significant than chemicals spiking, is the chain reaction caused when they do. At the spike of dopamine the limbic system of the brain starts to subdue the prefrontal cortex (part of brain that understands consequences). This happens because the brain is a “team of rivals” where structures are competing against each other for dominance.5
Researchers discovered that a spike of dopamine empowers the limbic system to “hijack” our reasoning and assessing abilities that are carried out in the prefrontal cortex.5 The prefrontal cortex tells us what is right and what is wrong and keeps our pleasure-seeking limbic system in check.
This explains why relapse is all too common for recovering addicts. Not only are they given a small “taste of their drug” when experiencing cravings, but the rational part of the brain that warns them of the consequences, is subdued.
The thing about addiction (and temptation) is that it does not discriminate. It affects the poor and the rich, the successful and unsuccessful. Medical doctors, as well as homeless transients, can easily become participants and victims of substance abuse.
David, in the old testament, was said to be a man after the Lord’s “own heart,”6 yet his downfall begun with viewing a woman bathing. Addiction and temptation can even happen to the best of us that start out in such promising ways.
The bible tells the story of God selecting a king for Israel. God first picks Saul, who was tall and good looking, but he failed to live up to God’s commandments. Then God picks David, a man after the Lord’s “own heart,” but he also failed. God then picks another, Solomon, who had a mind of wisdom, yet he failed too.
For the most part, we could say that Saul struggled with power and pride. David failed to keep his physical appetite in check, and slept with a married woman, Bathsheba.7 And Solomon’s vice was riches (“gold” and “silver”).8 These kings started out in such positive ways and were all so promising, but they all failed.
Then a man came along and is tempted by all three: riches, pride and physical appetite9 and doesn’t budge and didn’t give in. The name of this man was Jesus, appropriately called the “king of kings.”9
Perhaps there is a valuable lesson from the bible that can also be backed by science. Perhaps it really doesn’t matter how smart you are, how good looking you appear, your physical size or stature, your status or even how kind you may be. What appears to matter most when experiencing temptation, is a firm decision.
Ambivalence (should I do it, or shouldn’t I?) is a very strong and common characteristic of addicts.10
However, science has shown that before you start to experience an event, you process it within your brain and then try to give it meaning.11 What this means, is that we have the capability to decide how we are going to react to events before they even happen.
An often undervalued and under-appreciated component in managing addiction is to become aware of cravings and urges as they come and immediately rejecting their validity. This has been shown to be very effective to addicts in recovery.12,13,14