The 3-Minute Scientific Explanation of Addiction

The famous neurobiologist Anthony Movshon said that the human brain works like a camera. He said that the rational part of the brain is like the camera’s “manual settings,” which we can set according to how we want the picture to come out. Emotions, he said, work like the “automatic settings;” they function outside of our control. This metaphor of the human mind as a dual system offers a useful way to explain the nature of addiction and why addicts can’t stop using drugs on their own.

the rational part of the brain is like the camera’s “manual settings”

Addiction is an illness of the brain. It begins with a person using drugs to manipulate the manual settings of the brain, forcing it to produce chemicals that cause pleasant feelings. When the person continues to manipulate the brain through the use of drugs, the brain’s functioning begins to rely on the artificial chemicals of the drugs, rather than on the chemicals it normally produces. This is why addiction is known as chemical dependency. When this dependency on outside chemicals (drugs) sets in, the automatic settings of the brain take over.

The automatic functions of the brain control body functions that operate out of our conscious control, such as breathing, heartbeat, hunger, and thirst. These functions guard against our interference, because they need to work quickly and accurately, and our interference could cause them to malfunction. These automat- ic systems also block any attempts to control the bodily processes of addiction. The brain sends the sensation of hunger when the body needs nourishment; in this same way, the brain sends the sensation of hunger for drugs or alcohol to sat- isfy its need to receive outside chemicals. This sensation of hunger for drugs is what is commonly referred to as a “craving.”

When a craving arises from the automatic functioning of the brain, no act of will- power can overcome it. Just like there is no way to control hunger or thirst through willpower, neither is there a way to stop the cravings for drugs that an ad- dicted person experiences. Trying to resist these urges is like trying not to drink a cold glass of water after having been in the desert for 3 days without a drink; a powerful force is needed to break the craving.

Only an intervention from the outside can break the hunger for drugs in an ad- dicted brain. Research shows that it takes effective treatment composed of a com- prehensive system of drug rehabilitation and psychotherapy designed to effect change in the functioning of the automatic system of the brain. Any other form of therapy or treatment will be ineffective. Thinking cannot overcome emotions; willpower cannot overcome bodily functions. The manual settings can’t change the automatic settings; that’s why addicts can’t stop using on their own.