The problem of addiction: Part 2 – ‘Cheating, dopamine soaked memories’

pete doherty

In last Thursday’s post we introduced how addiction occurs when natural pleasure response processes get out of control. [Sorry I’ve not had a chance to post the follow up until now – it’s been a busy few days!]

It is clear that intellectually, you can tell yourself shouldn’t be doing something bad for you as many times as you like, but for some reason, this is very difficult to turn into actions which actually change your behaviour. We have all experienced this, we KNOW that eating an entire easter egg in one go will make us feel sick, and we will regret it later, but the pleasure we get from eating and the taste of the chocolate is enough for most of us to do it anyway! When this gets out of control, and we are for example, eating entire easter eggs several times a day, this has become an addiction which needs to be addressed.

It’s crucial to understand how cheating memories and dopamine-influenced cravings can overcome your well intentioned will to change (dangerous in itself because the loss of control can lead to depression) and this knowledge leads to clear steps you can take to deal with this and get out of the addictive cycle.

The important thing to remember is that logic is not enough to cure addiction….

Consider the fact that when a memory arouses a lot of emotion, it’s because there is lots of dopamine ‘attached’ to it. This means that dopamine actually distorts memories – for example when you remember something embarrassing it seems a lot worse than it actually was because of how upset you got also about it at the time.

Similarly, most of the time, the memories we get of how good something that we are addicted to actually felt (e.g. getting drunk, shopping) seem more pleasurable then they actually were because they are soaked in dopamine. This is known as “euphoric recall”. Dopamine cheats us into recalling distorted memories. When we are emotional, we are unable to see things clearly (think of the expressions “blinded by anger” and “blinded by love”) and the same is true of emotional memories. When we recall these memories, they are giving us an irrational view of the event – we are unable to think logically about the hangover the 2 bottles of wine will give us or the guilt we will feel after spending £3000 on a handbag.

Let us take the example of ‘Mary Jane’ who uses marijuana to excess, feels addicted and wants to quit but just keeps finding herself smoking endless “last joints”, despite her higher reasoning telling her how bad it is:

By the time evening comes round, when she usually sits back on the sofa and lights a joint – the primitive reactionary part of her brain pattern matches the time of day, the surroundings and the relaxing aura of the evening with smoking – which alerts she via an “urge” that she needs to be rolling a joint and lighting up. However, she has decided to quit, so she resists this urge via a contradicting message direct from her higher brain and instead experiences a slight craving, which she is able to overcome.

However, the next night, when the smoking time comes around again and Mary Jane has suffered a whole day without lighting up a joint, the pattern match occurs again, urging her that she should be smoking – like before, her rational brain says “NO! Mary Jane is not to smoke!”. But, because this message contradicts the ongoing cravings, the primitive brain thinks, perhaps the logical brain is wrong? A message is sent, laced with as much dopamine as can be spared, to get the higher brains attention. Mary Jane experiences even stronger cravings.

Because of this conflict, the memory store in order to help her higher brain decide what to do – what has smoking marijuana done for her in the past? The memory store comes up with lots of the dopamine filled happy times that she has had when smoking weed, so the more primitive brain assumes that cannabis is very important and has made her happy in the past many times! The expectation is set up – Mary Jane has apparently had these experiences in the past, and so she should be able to have them again.

Mary Jane’s logic is now overwhelmed by dopamine and emotion, all reason leaves her, and she reaches for the Rizlas to fulfil her brain’s expectation that all the ‘good times’ she has had in the past will happen again.

The way to beat addiction is to exchange these irrational euphoric memories associated with your addiction with new, correctional ones, highlighting the revolting nature of your addiction and how good it is when your are freed from the substance or thing which has hijacked your natural pleasure mechanisms and taken up so much of your time and capacity.

Anyone who has overcome an addiction will be able to tell you what an awful state they were in before and how they feel so much better after giving up smoking, being clean from drugs or not immediately gambling their wages – and it is because they have changed the emotions around these behaviours (often it’s a particularly unpleasant experience which finally tips them over) and that they are now able to clearly see what they were doing to themselves.

For Mary Jane to overcome her addiction, she has to set up an expectation that smoking is a bad idea, that it’s always going to be the “next joint” which bring the illusive state of mind she is looking for, that her mind will become unclear, her brain fuzzy, her lungs clogged from the mixed in tobacco inside the joint, the binge eating which occurs afterwards will be unpleasant, she will feel guilt, she will have to buy more food than she would normally, she may put on unnecessary weight, and that she is losing friends because of her unhealthy habit.

These are the negative expectations she should set up (best done with the help of an experienced therapist). However she should also have positive ones too! Recalling what a good feeling it is to have volition over your situation, how clear headed and in control she will feel, how she will be maintaining her healthy weight instead of putting on more, how she is saving money on food she is not binging on, how she will have more time to see her friends and pursue her own interests.

Mary Jane has got to truly “feel” emotionally what the addiction is doing to her, and setting up these expectations correctly are crucial – by realising the control you do have over your situation and not letting yourself be overcome you with cheating memories, you are taking back your life and kicking addiction out the door.

When faced with physical withdrawal symptoms (e.g. dry mouth) remind yourself that this is just the primitive part of your brain pattern matching to the thoughts of your specific addiction and if you think about the reasons why this is happening rationally and calmly, and ask your brain “is this all you can do?” – they will go away.

As always, the causes of addiction must also be addressed as well as the mechanism, this consists of meeting all your physical and emotional needs met, which are essential to good mental health – and it is valuable to go through this list and ascertain which of these unfulfilled needs may have triggered the addiction to begin with.

This is only an simplified overview – for more in depth information on the specific brain areas mentioned in this post – see the book Freedom from Addiction.

It would be great to have more feedback from people who have worked from this basis to overcome their own addictions, as it’s something after really getting to grips with the knowledge, you can test on yourself and use to improve your own life.

Posted by: Eleanor


8 responses to “The problem of addiction: Part 2 – ‘Cheating, dopamine soaked memories’

  1. Pingback: How to Save a Life « A Life Unwritten

  2. Pingback: How to Save a Life « A Life Unwritten

  3. hello Carly – I hope “wow” is a good thing! It’s quite a quick overview of a challenging idea to get your head around but hopefully something of value is still there. I really wanted the main principle to be easy to relate to and also apply to change your own life.

  4. hey this is the first time i have entered this site as i have only recently started looking for an answer for giving my cannabis addiction. I have tried a thousand times to stop using alot of the rational explanations you have been discussing and each time it only gets harder. How can i kickstart my motivation once more so I can control my addiction. As there are alot of my friends that still use the substance i do not wish to grow to hate it just because i could not use it sensibly. I want to learn control not necacearaly banishment of the drug? does anyone have any ideas?

  5. Hi Jamie – thanks for your comment – tackling addiction is not an easy thing to do on your own – and so what you are doing is very brave and admirable. If you are not able to shift your addiction on your own I really recommend our ‘self help’ book which will explain in more detail than I have been able to go into here, the processes behind addiction:

    Also see this article (which is quite long but is very relevant to addiction) which tells how joe griffin was able to control his addictive drinking behaviour in traditional ‘drinking situations’ (I think that part of the article is on the 3rd page) and explains more deeply the addiction process and what goes on in the brain:

    I hope this helps, also see our short page on addiction here for further info and recommendations:

    Don’t give up – addiction CAN be beaten, I wish you all the best, and please let us know how you get on.

  6. Bush goes ballistic about other countries being evil and dangerous, because they have weapons of mass destruction. But, he insists on building up even a more deadly supply of nuclear arms right here in the US. What do you think? Is killing thousands of innocent civilians okay when you are doing a little government makeover?
    What happened to us, people? When did we become such lemmings?
    We have lost friends and influenced no one. No wonder most of the world thinks we suck. Thanks to what george bush has done to our country during the past three years, we do!

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