Ancient circuitry, anticipation, addiction

Heather Dugmore interviews Steph about the neuroscience of addiction.

screenshot_4The familiar routes we follow to our bottle store, shopping centre, drug dealer, illicit affair, online porn site … these are physical or electronic routes but at the same time they create well-trodden mental pathways in our brains with powerful feelings of anticipation.

The nature of well-trodden pathways is that we will follow them again and again. We literally have to re-route our brains to new pathways and redirect our feelings of anticipation.

Johannesburg-based counsellor, life coach and author Stephanie Vermeulen explains this in her latest book, Personal Intelligence: Future Fit Now (EQ+IQ). “We have been led to believe that the rational brain rules our lives, but the ancient circuitry of our brains defies this in its constant seeking of a ‘feel good’ response,” she says.

“The ancient circuitry developed when we first roamed the earth and pursued activities that ensured our survival, notably finding food and procreating. As part of the evolutionary process, our brains developed a feel-good circuitry response to these activities, with an associated surge of the neurochemical  dopamine, known as the ‘reward chemical’.”

Dopamine doesn’t surge when we achieve the activity: it surges in anticipation of it.

“Our brain is much the same piece of kit as the one our ancestors used all those aeons ago, only it has to deal with far greater complexity today. The anticipation of food or sex has expanded into a wide range of tempting activities with an equally powerful anticipatory response, which can lead to harmful addictions.”

The effect of the addictive substance or activity compounds the problem – we might enjoy the effect or we might dislike the dark places to which it takes us, but this is secondary to the wanting, to the anticipation.

“We know the feel-good factor is short-lived and should be avoided, but the wanting circuit overrides all sensible thoughts.”

“Complicating this response is socially imprinted reinforcement that something will make us feel better,” Vermeulen continues. “We know the feel-good factor is short-lived and should be avoided, but the wanting circuit overrides all sensible thoughts. “It is the same for any addiction; the familiar circuitry dominates,” Vermeulen says. “We see this in young boys and girls who grow up with easy access to online content, such as  porn. If a young boy or girl takes a look at porn and if it sets off some form of sexual response or fantasy, the wanting circuitry is laid down.”

With the help of a therapist  who understands addictions, we need to retrain our brains to seek out new, healthy feel-good paths, such as exercise or having fun with our friends and families.

Behaviour modification is key, says Vermeulen, who believes that “getting back to basics is far more fulfilling than chasing tinsel”.

The instant gratification, consumerist society of “I want it and I deserve it now” has fueled our addiction circuitry and the result is many people land up in debt, in rehabilitation centres or deeply unfulfilled, anxious and depressed.