What is it about our brains that causes us to crave things that are bad for us, and why are we experiencing an epidemic of addiction? The answers are joined—and, this book suggests, not always obvious.
Unusually among academic researchers, behavioral neuroscientist Grisel (Psychology/Bucknell Univ.) has had extensive experience with nearly every addictive substance imaginable; her account of her wayward early 20s, chasing one high after another, is harrowing. A lesson she learned early on provides the title: “there will never be enough drug, because the brain’s capacity to learn and adapt is basically infinite.” That is to say, feed the brain addictive substances, and that new normal yields an insatiable hunger for homeostasis. “The brain’s response to a drug,” writes the author, “is always to facilitate the opposite state; therefore, the only way for any regular user to feel normal is to take the drug.” The neurobiology of addiction is imperfectly and incompletely known, she writes; there is certainly a genetic component, while brain structures shape and reshape depending on what is passing through them. For instance, if cocaine is a kind of laser hitting a certain point, marijuana is “a bucket of red paint” that touches many neural centers with its feel-goodness. As for alcohol, suffice it to say that the “primary inhibitory neurotransmitter in the brain” gets caught up in the process, which helps explain some of the stupider things people do when drunk. It also explains why in moderate doses, anxiety is quelled while in greater doses it is activated, going back to that homeostasis model. Grisel writes clearly and unsparingly about both her experiences and the science of addiction—tobacco and caffeine figure in, as well—making plain that there is still much that remains unknown or mysterious about the brain’s workings. In the end, she notes, much of our present culture, which shuns pain and favors avoidance, is made up of “tools of addiction."
Illuminating reading for those seeking to understand the whos, hows, and wherefores of getting hooked.