Engineering Addiction

I’ve got a background in math and science, as well as education and counseling.  So when I get to thinking about how addiction works, I tend to think about it nerdistically (OK, not a word, but you get it). I ask questions like “what holds it in place, what feeds it, what keeps it going?” This is especially interesting because addiction, any addiction, is so damaging.  Why would someone keep doing something that is harming them?  To answer this, we need to reverse engineer addiction.  We have to talk about feedback loops.

Self-reinforcing loops

A feedback loop is a bunch of things that impact each other.  The amount of food in the refrigerator impacts whether or not I go to the grocery store, and how much I buy there.  Then, the amount I buy changes what’s in the refrigerator.  A simple feedback loop.

There are two major kinds of feedback loops:  self-moderating (negative) loops and self-reinforcing (positive) loops.  In this case the positive feedback ones are the bad ones, and the negative ones are good.  The example in the previous paragraph is a self-moderating loop—the more food I have, the less I buy.  So the amount of food in my refrigerator is unlikely to become too large or too small—if I have too much, I won’t buy more.  If I don’t have enough, I’ll buy some.  It naturally keeps itself in balance.

Self-reinforcing loops are the bad ones.  They spiral out of control, like a rock rolling down a hill.  The farther it goes, the faster it goes, and the faster it goes, the farther It will go.  Once it starts, as long as it’s still going down the hill, it’s going to go faster and faster.  It doesn’t stop until there’s no more hill.

How addiction works: a vicious cycle

Addiction is a self-reinforcing cycle.  It almost always starts with an activity that can relieve distress.  And it’s usually an activity that can provide a lot of relief.  However (and this is the kicker), it creates more distress in the long term.  This may be because one gets used to it and needs more for the same relief, or because the activity causes longer term problems in life that create more distress (often it’s both of these).

Here’s the cycle:  I need relief, I use, which gives me short term relief and makes my brain want to use more, but it also creates more long-term distress, which means I need even more relief, which also makes me want to use more.  The cycle builds.  The rock rolls down the hill.  See the graphic on this page for an example of a cycle that feeds video game addiction.

The point

In order to address addiction, we need to use what we know about how addiction works.  We have to look at the self-reinforcing cycle.  First, the cycle has to be interrupted.  That’s hard.  But that’s not enough.  Some of the fundamentals have to be changed.  The addicted person has to begin to get relief in a different way.  They need to rebuild their life.  In other words, the cycle has to then be dismantled.  And usually there is more than one cycle to deal with. It requires a big transformation.  We have to bring a lot of firepower to bear on the problem.

How all this is done is the business of recovery.  We’ll talk about that more in later posts.

I appreciate any comments. :)