For 15 years, Dr. Marc Lewis was addicted to drugs. Against all the odds, however, he tackled his addictions and managed to become a developmental psychologist and neuroscientist. Lewis wrote his gripping life story down in the book Memoirs of an Addicted Brain – a book in which he blends his own experiences with drugs and addiction with scientific explanations of the neural activity that guided his behavior.
1. Why are some, like yourself, more prone to become addicted than others?
“I would say that the draw of addictive substances is universal, thus a common feature of human behavior. Close enough. I was more prone to addiction partly because of my own personality structure and partly through a strange and unique set of circumstances. (I think this “nature-nurture” balance is typical of most addicts.) I am probably a little more impulsive than most, and impulsitivity is known to predispose one toward addiction. I am also depressive in nature (though not actually depressed most of the time). My response to a hostile and demeaning environment in boarding school did indeed lead to a depression that lasted almost continuously for about two years. So, that predisposition was certainly triggered by events in my teenage years.”
“The sequence of events that did it for me was two years of depression in this lonely, almost soul-killing environment, where I wanted desperately to escape the feelings of isolation, failure, and self-denigration, followed by my move to Berkeley, California, where I was accepted to begin my undergrad studies. Berkeley in 1968 was a hotbed of drugs, as you probably know. I wanted to try them all….to get free of the lingering taste of victimization and depression. Among my peers, it was not considered unusual or inappropriate to take psychedelic drugs…and that’s how I got started. Taking heroin was not looked on so favourably, but in that drug-soaked environment I found very close friends who were at least partially addicted to heroin. So that became the next step for me, based on my wish to be a part of their lives and also my old tendency toward impulsivity and risk taking.”
2. Which addiction is – in your opinion – the most devastating for our society nowadays?
“Methamphetamine and crack are the worst, and heroin comes very soon after. Crack and meth are psychostimulants that take you to a place that feels very pleasureful and powerful, clear and strong, but then you come down, and you feel shitty. Depressed, exhausted and empty. You then want nothing more than to get back there, so the psychological addiction is extremely potent after only a few times. Also, these drugs produce a kind of semi-psychotic state, especially in concert with sleep deprivation, which is almost an inevitable concomitant. In that state people do really ugly things. They lose their sense of values and their capacity for empathy, and then they start to lose their whole sense of self. So they are apt to hurt people, or let people be hurt, without the capacity to see what they’re doing and stop themselves. Heroin (and other opiates) are also very addictive, mostly because they provide a feeling of warmth and contentment that is almost unrivaled. That feeling soon becomes precious, something to repeat again and again, especially for people who may feel that they can’t or don’t have close personal relationships and/or can’t trust other people to love them and care for them. On top of that, add the intense physical addiction that opiates are famous for. To stop taking these drugs, one must go through one or more weeks of extreme physical discomfort — withdrawal symptoms –combined with a sense of failure, shame, and/or depression. So stopping is NOT easy. And as with other strongly addictive drugs, you’ll do unhealthy and immoral things in order to get more.”
3. What sparked your interest in neuroscience?
“My passion in developmental psychology was an emphasis on emergent forms or ‘self-organization’ (adapted from complexity theory), but also with a strong focus on emotional processes. I tried to see the developing personality as a self-organizing whole that assembled itself through the interaction of constituent events or processes (this is also called the “dynamic systems” approach to development). Anyway, the constituent components, as construed in psychology, seemed far too coarse to do the kind of precise modeling I was interested in: things like schemas, emotions, beliefs, appraisals… They’re not really constituents at all, just vague categories. So I went to the brain, where I could really consider self-organization seriously. The way synaptic networks become assembled, consolidated and refined, through experience, and the way emotion is such an intrinsic factor in this emergent process–these were exactly the kinds of phenomena and the level of analysis I wanted to use for understanding development. And besides, the brain is just so cool. I found the biological “mechanics” of cognition and emotion superbly fascinating on their own.”
4. You’ve battled several addictions. Do you feel personal experience adds to a – in general – science based book?
“Very much so. I’ve talked a lot about that in recent interviews and lectures. Neuroscience, like any science, has to be highly reductionistic in order to track real processes, to find replicable results, and to understand the mechanics of biological and psychological events. But addiction is such a personal thing, characterized by emotional suffering as well as powerful attractions, huge amounts of personal conflict, struggles with self-control and will power, and many dark and potent feelings, including depression, shame, guilt and so forth. You have to have one foot in the scanner and one foot outside it, so to speak. You have to connect the phenomenology, the feelings, of addictive experience with the events known to take place in the brain, in order to get a thorough perspective. Addiction is a huge mystery for most people, the scientists who study it, the clinicians trying to help get on top of it, and the addicts (and their loved ones) as well. So we need to be as clever and creative as possible to crack this problem, and I think that combining personal experience (which usually takes the form of narrative) with neuroscientific data is one way of rising to that challenge.”
5. What is the book’s most important message to people who are struggling with addiction?
“For people actually caught in addictive cycles, the most important message is: there are real biological processes that underlie your intense and intensely confusing mental and emotional states. Those drives that seem almost irresistible are not just a product of being immature or self-indulgent or a slave to your passions. They stem from cycles of activity in brain systems that were designed (by evolution) to seek goals and to be highly motivated to achieve them. It’s a very natural, very important neural function. But for you it’s gone off the rails. It’s gotten locked in a feedback cycle with substances that are DESIGNED to make you feel better, and hence which constitute the most compelling goals for almost anyone. Same thing with self-control. You can’t understand why you can’t say NO and stick with it. You imagine it’s because you’re self-indulgent, weak, and useless. But there are distinct neuropsychological processes at work here too. The anterior cingulate cortex runs out of fuel if you try to inhibit impulses for extended periods of time. So many of your efforts to stop are doomed to fail for psychobiological reasons.”
“Understand the science as best you can. Understand the brain processes going on in you right now. That understanding will help you to feel less shame, guilt, and confusion. It will help you to think more clearly about your addiction and therefore be in a better position to find tools to fight it. Recognizing the neural realities of addiction isn’t a cop-out. It doesn’t replace the need for courage and commitment in order to get better. But it does let you see that what’s going on in your life has a natural order of its own. These biological realities can’t be denied, so use them to flesh out your understanding, reduce your feelings of self-contempt, and learn to live with yourself as you progress from being an addict to being an ex-addict.”
Marc Lewis is a developmental neuroscientist and professor of human development and applied psychology at Radboud University in the Netherlands, and professor emeritus at the University of Toronto. He is the author of over fifty journal publications in neuroscience and developmental psychology and coeditor of Emotion, Development, and Self-Organization: Dynamic Systems Approaches to Emotional Development.
Recommended Reading: Memoirs of an Addicted Brain
Lewis, M. (2011). Dopamine and the Neural “Now”: Essay and Review of Addiction: A Disorder of Choice Perspectives on Psychological Science, 6 (2), 150-155 DOI: 10.1177/1745691611400235
Lewis, M., Lamm, C., Segalowitz, S., Stieben, J., & Zelazo, P. (2006). Neurophysiological Correlates of Emotion Regulation in Children and Adolescents Journal of Cognitive Neuroscience, 18 (3), 430-443 DOI: 10.1162/089892906775990633
Lewis, M. (2005). Bridging emotion theory and neurobiology through dynamic systems modeling Behavioral and Brain Sciences, 28 (02) DOI: 10.1017/S0140525X0500004X
(Publications of his choice)