Honestly, the whole premise that becomes the butt of so many jokes “it doesn’t take a brain scientist”, isn’t exactly true. Unless you are one, you– like myself– fit into this category of “Dummies.”
When it comes to addictive behaviors, a lot of discussion surrounds the brain. When it comes to addiction, the addiction to alcohol isn’t about wanting to get drunk. When it comes to addiction, the addiction to drugs isn’t about wanting to get high. When it comes to addiction, the addiction to sex/pornography isn’t about getting an laid. Those are all symptomatic of a bigger problem. It is about the brain’s necessity for a chemical called dopamine. It’s why I create this “The Addicted Brain (for Dummies!)” because realistically, most people don’t really care about the intricate details of the brain science, but they do want to understand how and why it affects them.
AN OVERHEAD PROJECTOR ANALOGY
One of the first analogies I used to explain this to an individual was to talk about an overhead projector. Not many people use those anymore, but they are good for providing an explanation of how the brain stores information permanently, what affects our ability to recall it, and how we manage to bury it for what is, for all intents and purposes, forever.
It starts with the first overhead that begins with no transparency at all. When you turn it on, all you see in front of you on the screen or on the wall is the white light that passes through the lens. If you take a marker, and begin to draw on the screen of the overhead projector, it allows light to pass through except for those areas where you drew with the marker. If you use a black marker, all you will see is black where you drew surrounded by white light. If you use different colored markers, you see the respective color surrounded by white light. When you are finished drawing, you have etched onto the screen elements that become a permanent fixture of the overhead projector. For this exercise, we deliberately make our first drawing on the screen and not on a transparency because it represents that which we have etched into our brain. It is permanent. We can’t simply remove it like removing a transparency that was written on and overlaid atop of it.
Say we draw a stick man or stick woman. Now our brain, represented by our overhead projector, is permanently etched with a stick figure of a man or woman. It captures a moment in time that is representative of a typical day in the life of our brain which records everything. As time goes by, so too does a new transparency atop of the screen. But there’s an added twist. The new transparency is glued to the surface it is placed upon, thus making it a permanent fixture as well. The first one has something drawn on it. It may have something to do with the stick figures, but then again, may have nothing to do with it at all. Nonetheless, because we have overlaid our brain with something new, it brings out the new information and somewhat masks the old information that lies beneath which is the stick figure. As time goes by, so too does an ever increasing number of overlays, each having something new drawn onto it. The original etched stick figure was still very visible and easily identifiable underneath with only one transparency. The more transparencies that cover the original artwork of the stick figure, the less it becomes visible enough to recall it. Eventually, you can overlay the original artwork so much so, that you cannot even identify what is there buried beneath all of the other transparencies.
The original artwork is permanently etched on the screen like the permanent memory is etched into your brain. Overlaying new transparencies is representative of how we lose recollection of things beneath the surface. It’s represents a “rewiring of the brain.” The old wiring remains. We’ve just managed to create new neural pathways to other, more pertinent, relevant, and new updated information. But since it is permanently etched, under the right circumstances, you can make out the original artwork on the screen of the overhead projector in much the same way you can trigger your memory to recall what is buried beneath all of the new neural pathway connections in your brain. They never go away, but become increasingly more difficult to recall.
A TRAIL IN THE WOODS ANALOGY
As we approach the forest, we look for a way into the forest. Unbeknownst to us, in the middle of the forest is a spring. What makes that spring so special? It’s our addiction spring that yields water (a need) that gives us feelings of euphoria. When we enter the forest for the first time, we wonder somewhat aimlessly through it. Eventually, we find the spring that represents our addiction. But when we first find the spring, there isn’t an addiction associated with it. We don’t even know that it is an addiction spring. All we know is that the spring is very appealing to us because it fulfills a need it makes us feel good.
As we leave the spring and head back out of the forest, we have systematically marked the forest so that we can find our way back to the spring we liked so much. After all, that spring provided us with feelings unlike any others we had ever experienced before. We don’t know why. We only know that it does. First, the original trip through the forest was a discovery mission. Marking our path to get there, we find our way back to the spring again. And again, and again, and again. Eventually, it goes from a single trip to the spring, to two, to ten, then a hundred, then a thousand and so forth and so on. And so too, we’ve been to the spring so many times, we could find our way to the spring blindfolded, in the dark, for all we have to do is follow the trail of the beaten path we have created by going to the spring so many times. We follow that trail because we are compulsively predisposed to do so for our addiction we haven’t yet realized that we have.
Once the addiction is realized, and we discover that the spring is indeed bad for us, we decide to stop visiting the spring. But we can’t stop as if we have a homing device implanted within us that draws us to it. If we can overcome our compulsion to visit the spring, that beaten path starts to fade. If we don’t go down that path for a week, it’s still there. It’s easy to find and follow. In fact, it’s difficult not to follow it as we have systematically done multiple times a day for as long as we can remember. After a month or so, the trail through the woods starts to get filled with leaves and debris. Overgrowth also starts to develop.
After 3 months (90 days), the trail is still very visibly present, but now we start to have obstacles in our way that include leaves, fallen limbs, and overgrowth starting to impede our way to the addiction spring. The addiction spring is still there. We now just have a few obstacles in our way to get to it.
After six months, we have more of the same and it becomes increasingly difficult and much harder to go down the path. By a year, we can’t go down the path unless we clear the obstacles in our way. By two years, the trail becomes hardly visible. By year three, the trail is virtually impassable, and we’d have trouble even finding it. If we wanted to find the addiction spring, which is still forever present, we’d have to create a new path to get there. Of course we could blaze a trail down the old original path with some detours and deviations along the way perhaps, but we can’t get there without making considerable effort to do so. It’s why 3 years marks when you are in a state of remission and can rest easier knowing your path to the addiction spring is much harder for you to get to. You always know that it is there, but you aren’t compulsively predisposed to seek it, nor are you interested in it.
Back in your mind, you always know that spring is there. If you seek it again, if you try to blaze a trail back to it, you can get to it. It’s why addicts must remain vigilant so as not to go back to places that have been determined to cause them a problem.
A COMPUTER HARD DRIVE ANALOGY
Any time you do anything on a computer, depending on your OS (Operating System), and don’t get me started on one of the biggest influential providers in the world, you inadvertently and often unknowingly, write data to your HDD (Hard Disk Drive). But more importantly, it’s those things you deliberately write to your HDD. Individuals who seek and watch pornography often save for later, that which he(she) has watched before. And even if they don’t, often times, their web browser is poised and designed to do that for them whether they want it saved or not. This material gets etched onto the HDD in much the same way viewing it gets etched into your brain.
The HDD represents the brain where information is written and retrieved from it. It is, unlike the brain, semi-permanently etched onto the HDD. If you delete it, it’s still there. If you delete your browser history, that browser history is still there. It’s why law enforcement authorities have a means to forensically retrieve information that is embedded on a HDD even if the user has erased and deleted it. Ironically, you can delete it, and as far as you’re concerned it is permanently gone, but it can often be retrieved weeks, months, or years later. It’s only after the location in memory that the information is stored is overwritten so many times that it becomes difficult, if not impossible, to retrieve. Components of it will still be there, and it is virtually impossible to get rid of it without using a military grade software application designed to shred and wipe the hard drive rendering the data unrecoverable.
This process of writing, retrieving, and reading data parallels that of the brain’s propensity to do the same.
Remember when you were in elementary school and you had to learn your times tables? What about memorizing poems? Or historically significant dates in History class? You committed the information to memory in much the same way you commit addictive sexual behavior to memory. Only one is deliberate and the other isn’t.
If you were given a procedure to do, and the procedure called for 25 steps to complete, the first time you did that procedure, you’d rely very heavily on it so as to, not only get the steps done in the right order, but also to insure that you completed all of the steps. When you do that procedure for the second time, you remember some, but not all, of the steps. As you get a half a dozen times following the procedure under your belt, it becomes much more fluid to you and you rely less and less on the procedure itself to follow all of the steps. By the time you have done it a dozen times, you can do the procedure with little or no reference to the written instructions for it, but may sometimes rely on it as a resource from time to time. After a few dozen times, you can do the procedure without even looking at it at all because it is committed to memory much like your pornographic and/or sex addiction has been committed to memory.
You do the same with eye to hand coordination. Heavy equipment operators don’t just jump into a piece of heavy equipment and start digging. The first time, there is a learning curve because you have to first learn what each hand control does, what each foot pedal does, and all of other nuances that make up the machinery. It is almost comical to watch a first time operator of a backhoe because the movements are slow, and tedious, and painful, if not laughable, to watch. But spend 40 hours in one, by the end of that time, all of your motions will become fast and fluid as if the movements were an actual extension of your own body. You’ve trained your brain for it.
I know, I said “for Dummies!”. OK, so here is “Neuroplasticity for Dummies!” Your brain has the ability to program itself. Inputs include all sensory functions: taste, touch, feel, hear, see. Each and all of these are inputs feeding information into the brain. The brain receives input, and then makes decisions in a feedback loop. That loop contains all of your sensory input information plus what you already know to be true (your memories), and utilizes that information to make a decision (or multiple simultaneous decisions). As such, every time your brain is programmed, in essence reprogrammed, because the state now is different than the state it was in just a moment ago, new neural pathway connections are generated. For example, just a few minutes ago, I didn’t even have a heading or paragraph started that said “Neuroplasticity.” Each new connection is built within the existing network of connections.
A Beautiful Mind
Wrapping it all up, I’d like to point you to a movie because so many people can relate better to a visual/aural representation than they could possibly get out of reading it. If you’ve ever watched the movie “A Beautiful Mind”, a Ron Howard film, it is a story that surrounds Professor John Nash (Russel Crowe), a Nobel Laureate in Economics.1 Professor Nash suffered from schizophrenia. Alicia Nash (Jennifer Connelly), a former student, who also became his wife, suffered the consequences of his schizophrenia as it hijacked his brain. In doing so, it systematically became a part of their story and interfered with his relationships and his work; in much the same way addiction does. His demon was schizophrenia and “Charles (Paul Bettany)” and “Marcee (Vivien Cardone)” (representative of alcohol, drugs, sex addiction, and what have you, and yes, schizophrenia too) was his trigger.
This is a prime example of how addiction manifests itself in pornography, masturbation, sexual addiction, and betrayal trauma. As this was a movie inspired by the real life story of John and Alicia Nash, tragically, both Professor Nash and his wife Alicia died in a car accident while riding in a taxi on the New Jersey Turnpike on May 23, 2015. If you’ve never watched the movie, it is a very good depiction of how addiction works and mimics schizophrenia.
And that’s a wrap for “The Addicted Brain (for Dummies!)”. Look for a more in depth discussion on brain chemistry in the near future.