Tags: evidence-based practices

E=mc(2) and the Science of Addiction

04/14/09 | by the professor [mail] | Categories: General

Laymen and professionals alike often ask for a quick synopsis of what causes addiction—a succinct summary resolved down to 25 words or less. The problem is that addiction, like many behaviors, is far too complex for such a simple rendering that is easily understood beyond its most superficial context (see the closing remark for a brief, 25-word summary of the cause of addiction). And ironically, what is perhaps the most complex endeavor of science (i.e., the study of human behavior) is usually considered so simple by most people that anyone without proper training should be able to grasp instantly its most complex principles and corresponding explanations of behavior. So goes the science of addiction.

One of Einstein's most famous formulations in theoretical physics is expressed simply as E=mc(2). This elegantly illustrates how complex theories in science can sometimes be resolved down to very simple expressions. And while most well-educated students may be able to recite the terms in this equation (i.e., "the amount of energy released equals the mass times the speed of light squared"), few really comprehend its meaning beyond the most superficial terms.

Psychology is far more complex than theoretical physics. Not because of the detailed mathematical derivations upon which it is based nor even the I.Q. points necessary to seriously ponder its most advanced principles, but because of the number of variables that must be considered with even a seemingly simple behavior. (In physics, this is analogous to the number of simultaneous equations that must be solved to resolve the problem.) Einstein is reported to have considered physics relatively simple (pun added ;), apologies to Prof. Einstein), but he considered behavior complicated. So if Einstein considered what most of us consider complex as simple and what most people consider simple as complex, how confused is the state of science today?

Understanding drug addiction, like understanding most aspects of psychology, requires years of careful study which builds upon certain elementary principles and extends to theoretical formulations which fill the gaps in present knowledge. Some topics like drug addiction require additional training in behavioral neuroscience and in psychopharmacology to really understand 'how drugs work in the brain' to produce the strong motivational effects that define addiction. One of the most surprising aspects of my course on Drug Addiction for many undergraduate psychology majors is that "drug addiction involves the action of certain drugs on the brain!" And may the gods of knowledge protect the educator who attempts to explain to the average drug addict that THEY are not the ultimate expert on their addiction: people like to retain the misbelief that they somehow understand and control their own behavior even when faced with overwhelming evidence to the contrary. (Considering addicts, or any other individual for that matter, to have a real understanding of the causes of their own behavior derived from an amateurish 'self-examination' is tantamount to returning the pre-20th Century psychology of introspectionism. Regression is one thing, but losing over 100-years of progress in the field of psychology is inexcusable.)

The tele-psychologists pander to this desire for a quick and simple explanation to a rather complex behavior. The attention span of their audiences, and indeed the attention span of many tele-psychologists themselves, does not permit a more detailed, scientific explanation of the behavior, and it profoundly objects to the notion that some basic understanding of fundamental principles of psychology and psychopharmacology are requisites for understanding why people take drugs. By seeming to provide quick and easy explanations for drug addiction, they do a considerable disservice to the science of addiction and to the addicts themselves (See Dr. Phil’s “Addiction”.).

True drug addiction is relatively simple to understand for those with the appropriate training. The many causes of drug abuse and misuse are more varied and are therefore much more complex. (This is one of the reasons distinguishing between drug abuse and drug addiction is important.) Even alcohol addiction is more complex than addiction to other drugs. And experimental drug use (to a limited degree) is too often seemingly a 'normal' part of adolescent behavior. The desire to understand complex behavior often exceeds the empirical database for establishing cause-and-effect by traditional scientific criteria. The extension of 'understanding' into the realm of the unknown requires sound logic based upon careful examination of the available empirical evidence and systematic theory development; such constitutes the science of addiction today. An understanding of this process simply cannot be conveyed meaningfully in a concise 25-word summary to those not adequately trained in the field, much to the frustration of the specialists, laymen and ‘professionals’ alike.

In conclusion, addiction involves differential perturbations in mesolimbic dopamine and other neural systems mediating incentive motivational processes that produce a profound incentive contrast with consequential motivational toxicity. Or stated even more simply, E=mc(2)!


For those who are still not getting the point of the commentary let me add one last explanation of what I'm trying to convey: if I do give you the succinct, 25-word or less reply to your question that you demand, you simply won't understand the answer! Now get it? E = MC(2), a nice, succinct explanation that tells a lot in a few words or symbols but which relatively;) few people truly understand.

The above commentary is my response to those who ask for a quick and simple explanation of what causes drug addiction. Really, would anyone expect to actually understand how two little acetyl groups substituted for a couple of hydroxls on a morphine molecule makes heroin which is preferred over morphine in choice tests without having first taken organic chemistry or studied a bit on their own?! But in psychology, everybody thinks they can understand what we've spent years studying summarized in a simple, 25-word or less explanation. So what causes drug addiction?

Brain + (the right) drug x enough exposure = addiction.

Hey, I kind of like that! It's sort of Clark Hullian and I liked that dude (viz., the dominant force in mid-20th Century experimental psychology that you've probably never heard of). If you recall his equation describing motivated behavior, then you likely understand mine too.

Related on the ASNet
Primer on Drug Addiction
Biological Mechanisms of Addiction
Distinguishing Drug Abuse from Drug Addiction
Dr. Phil's "Addiction"

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