Why do we initially enjoy the effects of alcohol and drugs? Duh, because it feels good. Why? Because it increases our levels our feel good mechanism, dopamine.
Other natural things do this as well (sex, food, exercise) but drugs and alcohol do it much faster.
It is our instinctual nature to want to feel good and conversely to not want to feel…..well……shitty if you
So in our desire to increase the former and reduce the latter, people often become “addicted” to sex, overeating, running and what have you. Being that drugs and alcohol increase these dopamine levels
so darned effectively and quickly, it’s no surprise that people become “addicted” to them even more readily.
So apparently some people have lower natural levels of dopamine and are therefore more susceptible to seeking ways to increase those levels without even being aware that that’s what they are doing. Does that make having low dopamine levels a “disease”?
Personally I don’t think so, it just means that you have lower dopamine levels “than average”. Some people are probably blessed with having above average levels. That probably explains those annoying people who always appear to be so damned happy all the time!
This all validates, IMHO anyway, why people who have underlying issues such as social anxiety or anxiety in general, stress or depression, seek instinctually to remedy those states of being. If increasing your dopamine level makes you fell less “shitty” then it only follows that one will pretty much instinctively do “whatever it takes” to achieve those higher levels. Hence why people who feel lousy may choose to overeat, become sexually obsessed or run miles beyond what most of us would consider to be normal or fun.
So if we find ways to reduce anxiety, stress, depression, etc….then our need to increase our dopamine levels will become less of a need if it even remains a need at all. Obviously that’s the goal anyway. In my opinion, the best ways of addressing those underlying conditions is through positive cognitive behavioral methods, learning how to better cope with the elements of time (past, present and future) and to strive for becoming a more empathetic and curious creature about the world around us and what makes it tick.
So score one for neuroscience or neuropsychology for discovering the uses for and the properties of dopamine.
The lizard or instinctual brain doesn’t know what dopamine is nor does it care. It knows that sex feels good so it engages in it and that’s how and why species perpetuate. It also knows that it doesn’t want to feel bad so it does whatever it takes to avoid that. With the development of the thinking brain, the prefrontal cortex, we can now help our instinctual brain in its objective and unfortunately one way in which we do this is to CHOOSE (which is a prefrontal cortex function, thinking choosing, deciding) to take drugs and alcohol in order to feel better.
It works, until of course it doesn’t. We develop tolerance so they become less effective in the first place and more to the point, they don’t really alleviate the causes of the anxiety, stress, etc…that cause us to “need” more dopamine.
The mental health professionals with the aid of the pharmaceutical industry have come up with artificial means (psych meds) to try to alleviate some of these underlying issues which is why many who begin to take them no longer find the need to drink or drug anymore. They no longer are suffering from feeling shitty and therefore no longer need to “up” their dopamine levels.
I still prefer methods that accomplish alleviating these issues without the use of psych. meds but there are situations and conditions presumably that can’t be improved upon without them. I find that conclusion questionable but that’s an old debate that won’t be solved or proven one way or the other anytime too soon.
When we think, feel emotions-happiness or sadness, mental anguish or contentment, there are things going on in the brain on a neurological level. That’s all good to know but of little benefit to
those who are self-medicating to feel better.
One could come to the conclusion based on the above conversation that willpower does not possess the ability to overcome “addictions” because it does not affect dopamine levels.
I beg to differ for several reasons; 1-To stop using either drugs or alcohol still requires making a decision to do so and making decisions is in a large part determined by your will. 2-To learn cognitive methods of overcoming anxiety, stress, etc….also requires the will to endure the pain of facing this stuff while doing so.
Having a knowledge of how dopamine effects one’s state of contentment is useful for understanding “why” we use but that’s not enough to overcome the issues that made it necessary in the first place.
We now know that natural dopamine enhancers like sex and exercise and artificial ones like drugs and alcohol will diminish the severity of conditions like stress, anxiety and depression but those things
only offer a temporary reprieve.
You need to reduce the need for extra dopamine by reducing the things that cause that need (stress, anxiety, depression). Furthermore, you need to get to the root causes of these underlying issues and overcome them for a feeling of lasting contentment and peace.
So in conclusion, while neuroscience may help explain what all is happening on a neurological level when it comes to alcohol and drug dependencies, it can’t overcome those root causes. That’s something that us humans still have to do on our own or with a little bit of help.