Addiction- Research

What is an addiction?

The fact or condition of being addicted to a particular substance or activity. It is a central nervous system disorder characterised by compulsive engagement in rewarding stimuli, despite adverse consequences. It affects the way you feel, both physically and mentally. These feelings can be enjoyable and create a powerful urge to continue using that particular substance or take part in an activity. Being addicted to something means that not having it causes withdrawal symptoms, or a “come down”. Because this can be unpleasant, it’s easier to carry on having or doing what you crave, and so the cycle continues. Often, an addiction gets out of control because you need more and more to satisfy a craving and achieve the “high”.

What causes addiction?

The word “addiction” is derived from a Latin term for “enslaved by” or “bound to.”

Addiction exerts a long and powerful influence on the brain that manifests in three distinct ways:

– Craving for the object of addiction

– Loss of control over its use

– Continuing involvement with it despite adverse consequences.

For many years, experts believed that only alcohol and powerful drugs could cause addiction. Neuroimaging technologies and more recent research, however, have shown that certain pleasurable activities such as gambling, shopping, and sex, can also co-opt the brain.

Other than the typical addictions such as smoking, alcohol, drugs and gambling, other addictions include, caffeine, food, internet, sex, work, video gaming, TV, exercise, shopping, pornography, love, anorexia and bulimia etc.

Understanding different types of addiction

Substance addictions

Nicotine, alcohol and drugs etc.

Those suffering with addiction need a substance in the same way that others need food and water, and a person is more likely to become vacant, irritable and even mean when an addiction has taken hold.

Behavioural addictions

Eating disorders, sex, shopping etc.

These types of addictions are often not taken seriously and can be blamed on an ‘addictive personality’ or an individual’s bad habit. Apart from eating disorders, behavioural addictions do not generally tend to affect a person’s physical health and can therefore be difficult to spot.

Recognising addiction

In the 1930s, when researchers first began to investigate what caused addictive behavior, they believed that people who developed addictions were somehow morally flawed or lacking in willpower. Overcoming addiction, they thought, involved punishing miscreants or, alternately, encouraging them to muster the will to break a habit.

The scientific consensus has changed since then. Today we recognize addiction as a chronic disease that changes both brain structure and function. Just as cardiovascular disease damages the heart and diabetes impairs the pancreas, addiction hijacks the brain. This happens as the brain goes through a series of changes, beginning with recognition of pleasure and ending with a drive toward compulsive behavior.

Pleasure principle

The brain registers all pleasures in the same way, whether they originate with a psychoactive drug, a monetary reward, a sexual encounter, or a satisfying meal. In the brain, pleasure has a distinct signature: The release of the neurotransmitter.

Dopamine release in the nucleus accumbens is so consistently tied with pleasure that neuroscientists refer to the region as the brain’s pleasure center.

Scientists once believed that the experience of pleasure alone was enough to prompt people to continue seeking an addictive substance or activity. But more recent research suggests that the situation is more complicated. Dopamine not only contributes to the experience of pleasure, but also plays a role in learning and memory- Two key elements in the transition from liking something to becoming addicted to it.

Learning process

According to the current theory about addiction, dopamine interacts with another neurotransmitter, glutamate, to take over the brain’s system of reward-related learning. This system has an important role in sustaining life because it links activities needed for human survival (such as eating and sex) with pleasure and reward.

The reward circuit in the brain includes areas involved with motivation and memory as well as with pleasure. Addictive substances and behaviors stimulate the same circuit—and then overload it.

Repeated exposure to an addictive substance or behavior causes nerve cells in the nucleus accumbens and the prefrontal cortex (the area of the brain involved in planning and executing tasks) to communicate in a way that couples liking something with wanting it, in turn driving us to go after it. That is, this process motivates us to take action to seek out the source of pleasure.

Development of tolerance

Over time, the brain adapts in a way that actually makes the sought-after substance or activity less pleasurable.

In nature, rewards usually come only with time and effort. Addictive drugs and behaviors provide a shortcut, flooding the brain with dopamine and other neurotransmitters. Our brains do not have an easy way to withstand the onslaught.

In a person who becomes addicted, brain receptors become overwhelmed. The brain responds by producing less dopamine or eliminating dopamine receptors— An adaptation similar to turning the volume down on a loudspeaker when noise becomes too loud.

As a result of these adaptations, dopamine has less impact on the brain’s reward center.

People who develop an addiction typically find that, in time, the desired substance no longer gives them as much pleasure. They have to take more of it to obtain the same dopamine “high” because their brains have adapted—an effect known as tolerance.

Compulsion takes over

At this point, compulsion takes over. The pleasure associated with an addictive drug or behavior subsides—and yet the memory of the desired effect and the need to recreate it (the wanting) persists. It’s as though the normal machinery of motivation is no longer functioning.

The learning process mentioned earlier also comes into play. The hippocampus and the amygdala store information about environmental cues associated with the desired substance, so that it can be located again. These memories help create a conditioned response—intense craving—whenever the person encounters those environmental cues.

Cravings contribute not only to addiction but to relapse after a hard-won sobriety. A person addicted to heroin may be in danger of relapse when he sees a hypodermic needle, for example, while another person might start to drink again after seeing a bottle of whiskey. Conditioned learning helps explain why people who develop an addiction risk relapse even after years of abstinence.


That powerful desire that yearns to be satisfied by going back to your addiction. If you give in and indulge, it’s commonly referred to as relapse. But becoming aware of your cravings and learning how to manage them is a way to avoid relapse and stay on track with your recovery.

First, it’s important to understand that cravings are normal. Too many people recovering from addiction think that cravings are a sign that they’re relapsing. You only relapse when you revert to using the substance to cope with life stress and demands. You can and should expect to feel that strong desire to revert back to the old life from time to time. The goal isn’t to eliminate cravings, but to recognize when a craving cycle begins and then intervene before it pulls you into a downward spiral.

Craving cycle

Craving types and intensity differ by the person, but there’s a familiar pattern that’s common to most people. Here’s how the typical craving cycle progresses:

Trigger response: A person, event or sensory experience (smells, music or familiar surroundings, for example) trigger a thought or emotion that puts you in touch with the old addictive behavior. It could be as simple as walking by a bar and smelling alcohol or driving through a section of town where you used to meet up with drug-using friends. The trigger puts the craving cycle in motion.

Obsessive thinking: Once you’re in touch with the old addictive behavior, your mind tends to lock onto those familiar ways. It then becomes difficult to let go of these thoughts. You toss them around in your head, weighing the pros and cons. But the more you think about it, the stronger the urge to act it out becomes.

Full-blown craving: Craving is both emotional and physical. The emotional part is a compulsive need to get your “fix.” You can hardly think of anything else. The physical part of craving activates the stress response where you might experience increased heart rate, shortness of breath and perspiration. Once you get to the full-blown craving stage, the pull toward the addictive behaviour is very strong and it’s difficult to resist the urge to act on your craving.

Can I communicate this process through design?


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