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Why Do We Get Addicted To Things?

VO: Noah Baum WRITTEN BY: Alex Slade
Our understanding and appreciation of mental health issues has arguably never been more talked about. But, the human brain and human behaviour is still one of the most complicated fields in all of science. And, the science of addiction (if there even is such a thing) is difficult to define. But, is there a reason why we get addicted to things? Are there psychological clues, which can explain the behaviour? In this video, we find out.
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Transcript

Why Do We Get Addicted to Things?


Today, addiction is recognized as a chronic disease; one that changes our brain structure and function, altering how we think about even everyday things. It’s often painted as easy to perceive for an outsider looking in, but difficult to track for the person who actually suffers from it. And, while every case is unique, there’s often a basic pattern that forms. Perhaps you believe that you need a drink to calm yourself, and you need one more to feel good. The more you drink, the more it makes you feel as though you’re happy, and so a connection in the brain forms suggesting that drinking equals happiness. You look forward to that happiness, and so you drink more. But of course, the process is applicable for lots of different triggers.

In many ways, addiction feeds on a natural human impulse – to look for things that make us happy. It could be seemingly ‘safe’ lifestyle choices like playing video games, exercising, or watching TV. Or, the more stereotypically addictive patterns like drinking alcohol, gambling, having sex or taking drugs. Addiction sets in when these things dominate our thoughts, to the point where they directly impact our daily life. Before long, we feel as though you can’t live without them.

But why is this? Why does the quest for ‘happiness’ skew the way our brains work? And why are certain activities seemingly more likely to make us feel this way? Why do we get addicted to things?

Whether it’s recreational drugs, gambling or any other addictive pursuit, these things give the brain a powerful surge of dopamine – a chemical compound linked with feelings of reward and reinforcement. How fast or how intense this dopamine is released determines how quickly we feel ‘happy’. And if more alcohol, more sex, or more drugs means more dopamine-fuelled happiness, then the reflex to just say “why not?” becomes all too tempting.

The dopamine hits on their own might not be so bad, but they also mix with the release of another neurotransmitter called glutamate, which plays a big a part in how we learn and memorise things. As both neurotransmitters are firing off at once, the brain becomes overloaded, and links the two together. Quickly, this reward-related learning can spiral out of control, leading to addiction.

And now’s when compulsive behaviours can set in. The problem is that the almost immediate effects of reward and happiness stay in our memory, ready to present themselves at the next opportunity. All the while, the memories of possible side effects, negative outcomes or unhappiness are smothered out. Sometimes gradually, but often fairly rapidly, the person who’s addicted (or is becoming addicted) routinely acts on the seemingly logical urges that their brain creates. Driving to get fast food when you aren’t especially hungry; Spending more than you have while online shopping; Placing big money bets on sports you don’t care about… In the throes of addiction, it’s difficult to see when the downsides outweigh the upsides – which is part of the reason why addicts can find it hard to admit that they’re addicted.

It's an obvious understatement, but the brain is a pretty impressive thing. It’s operating and completing tasks subconsciously that we’re not even aware of, and it’s constantly adapting to our ever-changing lives and environments. However, when it comes to addiction, these abilities aren’t always such a great thing. The craved for dopamine releases may feel less and less effective over time, because our brain has developed a tolerance to the trigger. It’s gotten so used to the apparently good feelings linked with an addictive substance or behaviour, that the ‘happiness’ is dulled. This means that while the physical effects of drinking alcohol, taking drugs or smoking cigarettes (for example) remain, the pleasure that comes with it diminishes.

But, that doesn’t mean the addiction has simply passed. Because, once the undesirable aspects of any addictive pursuit threaten to show themselves, that’s when the so-called ‘vicious cycle’ kicks in. Unless they’re making a specific, targeted effort not to – which is easy in theory, but difficult in practice – addicts look to double down on that hit of dopamine, by feeding their addiction further still. Whether it’s more shots, another purchase, another partner, more money at the card table or more food from the local take-out… the more the individual seeks to satisfy their urges, the more they become addicted to them.

In terms of root causes, addictions can be tricky to trace and pinpoint, and they can form due to a combination of factors. The idea of ‘peer pressure’ offers some explanation for some cases, as addicts are seemingly encouraged through an association with others doing the same thing. Specific emotional states can contribute, too, particularly when an individual is looking for something to outweigh significant negative feelings or trauma. That said, the rise of an addiction can also be circumstantial, with stories of patients getting hooked on prescription drugs regularly featuring in the news. It’s certainly a rising phenomenon and, while figures do vary, it’s reported that between five and ten percent of Americans use prescription drugs for non-medical purposes. In fact, deaths related to prescription drug abuse have more than quadrupled since the turn of the twenty-first century. And the problem partly rests with that compulsive need to keep doing something (or taking something) if the brain tells you that it’s good.

But, what makes an addiction even harder to beat is that the addictive behaviour (or, at least, parts of it) are often engaged in without conscious choice. Addicts become fixated on whatever they’re addicted to, and may struggle to see the problem until something or someone changes their perspective. In popular culture, you might call this an ‘intervention’ or, in some cases, even an ‘epiphany’.

The hope is that after such an event, the individual becomes less dependent on whatever substance or behaviour they’re hooked on – having seen their situation in a different light. But, of course, it’s rarely that simple, and there are countless hurdles to overcome before anyone conquers their addiction. And, even then, some former addicts may never feel completely free from the cycle – but, rather, in control of their choices. As with the forming of addictions, there are dozens of factors that come into play when trying to beat one.

All of this is not to say that every vice automatically translates into an addiction. Only that when you are venturing through the wild side, it's best not to take too many chances chasing a dopamine high.
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