*The purpose of this podcast is threefold: *
(1) gain an understanding of how addiction is created by learning about the neuroscience
(2) conceptualize the complications, chaos, and damage that is caused when we over-stimulate our brain
(3) to explain powerful skills that can be used to manage compulsions or addictions
Here I lay out a foundational explanation so you can know your own inner compass and the compass of others around you when it comes to thinking about our thinking and overcoming impulse in our lives.
** A Two-Part Brain**There are 2 significant parts of the brain that are correlated with the creation of most addictions: the prefrontal cortex and the limbic system. The prefrontal cortex is the part of the brain, just inside the forehead. This part of the brain is the source of what we call the “higher functions”; moral reasoning, rational thoughts, logical thinking, values of right and wrong, caring about relationships, guilt, remorse, and consequences.
Another part is the limbic system, located in the center of the head. The primary objective of the limbic system is to keep us alive. It is the source of survival instincts and our innate desire to procreate. A distinguishing difference between the limbic system and the prefrontal cortex is that the limbic system does its job by means of feelings, emotions, and instincts; it does not have the capacity to think. Because it does not “think” (like the prefrontal cortex), there is no shame, no guilt, no morals, and no values associated with the limbic system.
It is not immoral, rather it is “A-moral,” because it is void of any moral reasoning or thinking. Some suggest that 90% – 95% of our behavior is prompted by this subconscious limbic region of the brain. In other words, much behavior is driven by subconscious limbic emotions that, like an iceberg, are predominantly underwater or subconscious.
These two parts of our brain work in concert with each other. The balance between these two regions, has an immense impact on the quality of life. The tug-of-war sometimes felt between what we think is right (pulling in one direction) and what we feel like doing (pulling in a different direction), is a battle between the prefrontal cortex and the subconscious limbic part of the brain. Our thoughts about what we think is right or wrong (originating from the prefrontal cortex), is usually easy to identify. However, it is often more difficult to determine the exact origin of those very strong but subconscious limbic emotional surges.
** Prefrontal Hijack**Any stress or painful feeling activates the limbic alarm system. If the stress is severe enough, the limbic system shuts down the prefrontal functions, creating a scenario that makes the “survival need” an absolute priority. For example, if somebody is holding your head underwater (in an attempt to kill you), the limbic alarm will activate and immediately shut down prefrontal functioning. When this happens, moral reasoning disappears and that breath of air becomes an absolute priority. In that moment, you are not worried about what you’re going to eat for lunch, or if you will be late for work.
Your only focus is that desperate need to get a breath of air. With the prefrontal functions shut down, you will do whatever it takes to get that breath. If you had a knife in your hand, would you stab the guy? If you didn’t have a knife, would you pop him in the nose, pull his hair out, or dig at his eyes? Without prefrontal functions, most people will do whatever is necessary to get that breath of air. This life-saving limbic process is God-given, powerful, persistent, and dominant.
How Addictions Are Created
In the brain, there are several million receptors/receiver connections, each with a “synapse” or synaptic gap. Communication through this synapse is facilitated by “neurotransmitters” or “neurochemicals.” Two chemicals associated with most addictions are Dopamine and Glutamate. Dopamine is the pleasure chemical, glutamate is the memory chemical.
Dopamine helps facilitate a feeling of pleasure on a trip to Disneyland. Glutamate creates a memory that Disneyland was a source of pleasure. When we eat something delicious, dopamine gives us a feeling of satisfaction, glutamate reminds us about the source of that satisfaction. Functionally, these two chemicals work hand-in-hand and play an important role in creating passion and motivation to work hard, study diligently, stick with a task. As long as these neurochemicals are dispersed in appropriate amounts, dopamine helps us feel content, happy and satisfied, glutamate reminds us of the source of that satisfying feeling.
However, if the limbic system receives a consistent “over-stimulation” or “flash flood” of these chemicals, it can eventually create a switch in our limbic priority system. When this switch in the limbic system happens, the need for stimulation can become more important than our need for survival, and the result of this switch is an addiction.
When the priority of the limbic system switches, the need for stimulation becomes more important than the need for survival. Consequently, the need for stimulation is felt as urgently and intensely as if you have gone without drinking water for 2 days, or without eating food for 2 weeks. In response to these intense feelings and as an attempt to “get what the limbic system feels like you need,” the limbic system shuts down prefrontal functioning, and creates something like a “one man tug-of-war” with the limbic system pulling in one direction, and NO prefrontal pull in the opposite direction.
*What does addictive behavior look like? *
A hungry old man walks into a grocery store with just enough money to purchase food to keep him alive. However, after noticing the cigarettes behind the counter, he buys cigarettes with what little money he has, rather than the food. Why? Because the need for the Nicotine stimulation, has become more important than survival. A group of men huddle around a little tin-can fire late at night in 12 degree weather, waiting for an arrival of their preferred drug.
Why? Because the anticipated drug stimulation, is more important than being in a warm house with their family. An elderly widow in a gambling casino is wasting away her life savings. Why? Because the stimulating thought of money is more important than her savings account. Additionally, her prefrontal cortex has been shut down and she is not thinking rationally. She will likely feel terrible tomorrow, but in that moment, the stimulation she seeks is more important than anything else.
In summary, we create addictions by over stimulating (or flash flooding) our limbic system with dopamine and glutamate. The overstimulation of our limbic system, creates a switch in the limbic priority system. When stimulation becomes more important than survival, we have an addiction.
Other Complications From Over Stimulating the Limbic System and Pornography
We have received many warnings about the dangers of looking at pornography. Here are some other consequences of over stimulating our brains.
These complicating effects can happen with each and every flash flood:
Prefrontal functions are hijacked, creating the scenario of a one-man tug-o-war. The limbic system is pulling one direction with no resistance pulling in the opposite (moral reasoning) direction.
Stimulation becomes as important as survival.
Raises the pleasure thermostat and creates a greater disparity between current behavior and our ability to feel pleasure. The higher the pleasure thermostat (or hedonic set point), the more difficult it is to feel happiness. This often creates depression.
Damages neuropathways, which create a condition that fits the medical model for a brain disease.
Damages relationships. The shame and guilt associated with flash flooding our brain, will often sever the closeness and connection we feel with others. This disconnect is counterproductive to human happiness.
The event is deeply imbedded in our memory
** Fighting the Limbic System: A Futile Fight**When we get “pounced on” by a massive wave of temptation or an addictive surge, we will instinctively clench our fists, grit our teeth, and desperately try to show our valor by fighting the cravings and urges. My opinion is that fighting the limbic system (because of its pervasively persistent power), is like getting into a limbic boxing ring with Mike Tyson. He will beat our face in and bite our ear off, but we will not win the boxing match. Fighting the limbic system is like fighting a limbic enemy army on a bicycle with nothing more than a squirt gun. Furthermore, the limbic fight could be compared to maintaining a fighting stance with a wave. The first few waves on a hot summer day might feel good, but the waves come at us every 10 seconds, day and night. Eventually, if we maintain a fighting stance, the waves will wear us out. It is a futile fight.
So, what can we do? We learn how to surrender.” We learn how to give up the fight with the limbic system. Surrendering does not imply giving into the limbic cravings, rather giving up the fight with them. We get out of the boxing ring as quickly as we can. We raise a white flag in the face of the limbic enemy army. We learn how to surf the addictive surges, rather than attempting to valiantly fight the waves. My therapeutic experience has taught me that those who learn how to “surrender,” rather than fighting them, will experience much more success.
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Resource: Dr J.L. Redd,