The Addicted Mind; Brain-Forest


Addiction to nicotine and other substances is as much a disease as cancer or diabetes. Addiction processes have recently been mapped using MRI scans and chemical tracing technology at several major research institutions across the U.S. The results are in:

a) the human brain learns how to seek out and reward the use of certain substances,

b) there is conclusive evidence of physical, genetic and environmental pre-cursers playing a primary role in the process of addiction, and

c) the complex physiological, behavioral, and chronic disorder of addiction is treatable. Not curable…treatable. Join me for a topographical survey of our brains in the setting of…a forest.

The forest of our mind is lush. Thick flora is cut by paths and furrows created by the traversing of water and air (inbound learning stimuli and outbound messages). At the lowest elevation of the forest floor lie the rutted ravines which have been etched by eons, carrying water from the higher elevations, cutting through soil and rock as it descends here to the forest floor. Here is also where air settles and rises with the sun’s heat. These tracks are permanent and easily followed. It is these elemental super-highways which carry information from the highest bluff (the per-frontal cortex) where we process our environment to the forest floor (the mid-brain) where primitive survival instincts and impulses live. Our healthy minds become addicted minds when the ravines become flooded with storm-surges and detritus, and the rising thermal drafts become relentlessly super-heated. Our forest becomes uninhabitable to nature’s creatures and they flee from the devastation.

At some point in our lives, we were confronted by a stimulus, either external or internal, which demanded we take notice (a pack of wolves viewed from atop the bluff) and we turned to our mid-brains for a response (primitive survival instincts) and found nothing; no warm air rose up to us carrying a message. In blind panic, we turned to an external solution in the form of a fast, chemical solution (cigarettes, alcohol, etc.) and the deepest ravines of our mid-brain were filled to overflow with a more aggressive solvent than nature intended (nicotine, etc.) and our forests instantly adapted to this solvent-based ecology. In every situation similar to that first pack of wolves, we took to the bluff, cried down to the forest floor and the response was the same; “use chemicals if you want to live!” As the animals and flora of the forest fled (our health, healthy relationships, our values, our self-esteem, our resources and more) we saw that the toxic fluids saturating our groundwater were poison. We still smoked (or used mind-altering chemicals). Why did we do it, and how do we recover?

As mentioned above, we substituted cigarettes, etc. for our natural survival priorities; sex, food, and shelter. There is no need for shame; we can stop beating ourselves down for the predisposition to addiction. The substitution was instant and for us it was inevitable. People like us are born to addiction, just waiting for the right moment and the right chemical to fill the place where healthy responses live in non-addicted people. This chemical-trail becomes etched more deeply than any normal route. Where non-addicted people use only dopamine, serotonin, endorphins, and other synaptic chemistry to convey messages inside their brains, we have attached nicotine, etc. to those messages and the result is a physiologically tragic, hard-wired connection; chemicals = well-being. Thankfully, this hard-wiring is not permanently dominant; it can be re-wired and the brain will heal, slowly but surely, after we first do whatever it takes to stop using chemicals and then learn how to recover.

Recovery begins for many of us with accepting our addiction as a real, permanent, chronic, and manageable disease rather than a moral failing or a “weakness”. This acceptance allows us to escape a cycle of shame and self-loathing which hamper many an addict’s recovery. We begin to look at ourselves as good people with bad diseases rather than as bad people with bad habits. This freedom may seem like “getting off light” for our destructive behaviors but it is not. This freedom of acceptance gives us the direction and strength to assess our addictions, lives, attitudes, and behaviors in the spirit of building new lives in recovery.

It is true; we can enjoy a forest full of lush flora, clear water, temperate air, and vibrant creatures. It will materialize…if we work for it.


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*Image courtesy Flickr creative commons.

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