A Hierarchy Of Urges And Why Love Trumps All...


-By A. Scott Roberts
M.S. Rehabilitation Counseling

A craving starts with a stimulus, which can be from drugs, alcohol or pornography. This stimulus can either be a physical condition or an internally generated thought. The stimulus, whether it be internal (such as a thought) or external (such as a pornographic image from the computer screen), is a signal that triggers a sequence of events within the brain and body which usually results in an external action.

For example, pornographic stimuli affects the thalamus within the limbic "reward" system. This area converts this signal to an urge within the cortex of the brain. In a sense, the cortex says, “Hey, you should do this to fulfill my need!”

An urge is literally something that is urgent. Urges take priority and push other matters to the side. Urges feel as if something to be done. The cortex of the brain translates the urge into a desire, targeted toward something specific. This desire will impel us by a conscious motivation towards an action.

For example, the urge of hunger turns into a desire for food. Urges become wants or needs which struggle against each other for priority in a hierarchy (discussed more in the Truth Of Addiction book). The strongest urges will jump on top and demand immediate action.

When you have an urge, the next step is taking physical action to satisfy it. The action may be quick or may take significant effort and time. It may even push us to do things that are uncomfortable or may take a great deal of time. The urge may say, “I need a drink” and the alcoholic may go out of his way to obtain alcohol (external action).

The brain now wants proof that specific action was performed before it triggers the reward. To explain what this is like to non-addicts, it is like experiencing hunger. Going to a restaurant or looking for food isn’t enough. It doesn’t satisfy the urge. Only putting food in your mouth, chewing and digesting it does. Swallowing the food makes your limbic system detect that you are satisfying your urge and thus the reward is given. Similarly, alcoholics may not be fully satisfied until they have had drink after drink.

Whatever action satisfied the urge, whether it is eating food, looking at pornography or drinking a beer, the brain tells you, “Yes! Keep doing it!” until it is completely satisfied. Once the limbic "reward" system is satisfied, then it will tell the cortex of the brain to stop because it is filled. In a sense it may say, “That is good enough for now. Job well done,” and releases chemicals in the brain that make you feel full and relaxed. The pangs you may have initially experienced has now been replaced by a sense of satisfaction.

In the interesting case of anorexia nervosa, an urge of being socially accepted and thin, overrides the urge to eat. The urge to be thin is put at the top of the hierarchical order and the brain will start to hallucinate the image the individual sees of themselves in effort to compensate and make sense of it.

The individual with anorexia nervosa now sees themselves as overweight, while those on the outside see them as extremely thin and emaciated. This example shows us that the urge to be thin has become more important and the brain tries to compensate.

It might also be important to understand OCD (Obsessive-Compulsive Disorder). OCD is where urges that are less important and trivial, such as ticks or repetitive movements, override other urges. Again, people on the outside, may find these ticks annoying or weird, but the urge has been given priority in the brain. Mindfulness Practices like those found in the Truth Of Addiction program has been found to be extremely effective in OCD disorders. After all, addiction is an obsessive compulsive disorder to use your “drug of choice.”1

People who purposely fast for religious reasons may tell you that once they have been a day or so without food, they feel that it actually becomes easier not to eat. In fact, it actually takes some time of eating long after a fast, for it to be pleasurable again. This is because, for religious reasons, the individual has forced himself not to eat and the brain eventually compensates by placing the desire for food lower ranking on the hierarchy. This results in a lessened urge to eat.

Several studies on animals reveal that they value drugs over normal behaviors such as eating and sleeping and end up dying from malnutrition and exhaustion. In fact, animals such as mice have been observed working around the clock to obtain more of a drug by pressing a lever several hundreds of times to obtain just one dose!2

Humans are different and have a large part of the brain, the prefrontal cortex. This part of the brain keeps other brain systems in check and helps us to make proper decisions. Research shows that this part of the brain is suppressed in addicts. But, by gaining an understanding of how urges work, you can use this information to your advantage and place more important urges higher on the hierarchy.

For example, when you go to the computer to look at pornography, stare at a picture of your wife or family instead. Place the picture of someone you love and could hurt through the result of your actions. Your motivation to resist an urge and place it lower on the hierarchy can come from the love you have for your wife, your child or God. Love trumps all and is the “pinnacle” of the hierarchy – and science confirms this.3 It is the greatest motivational factor of survival that is deeply rooted within us.

Mentioned in the Truth Of Addiction program, love plays a crucial role in addiction treatment and trumps all other urges. Many addicts hit “bottom” because they have lost a loved one or are on the verge of loosing a family member. A “bottom” as described in AA, is when the brain takes a good hard look inward at primary survival. From there, progress inevitably follows.

-A. Scott Roberts



1.    Hanstede M, Gidron Y, Nyklicek I. The effects of a mindfulness intervention on obsessive-compulsive symptoms in a non-clinical student population. J Nerv Ment Dis. 2008;196:776-779.
2.    Deroche-Gamonet, V., D. Belin, and P. V. Piazza. 2004. “Evidence for Addictionlike Behavior in the Rat.” Science 305:1014–1017.
3.    Brain Changes Occur Even With Placebos; San Francisco Chronicle, Aug. 13, 2001.