Tuesday, January 02, 2007


My 2005 new year's resolution was to start drinking alcohol. I succeeded before I failed, which is to say I did drink alcohol regularly for most of that year and I developed a bit of a palate for it, but then I lost interest again and finally resigned myself to being a non-drinker. I just don't like drinking alcohol and I'd rather not.

Now I know a bit more about substances and what draws us to them (I'm using an article by Rebecca Skloot as my primary reference text. It's not online but is in the January 2007 issue of Oprah Magazine. Newsweek also recently covered this topic). Addictions form when the brain associates an activity or substance with pleasure. When something causes pleasure, dopamine (a chemical in the brain) is released. Some of that dopamine affects memory and the brain begins to link that stimulus with the increased dopamine. Dopamine also affects the parts of the brain that control decision-making and motivation. When it gets near the substance that caused pleasure, the brain will start to release dopamine in anticipation and will drive the person to get a hold of that substance again. My problem with alcohol was that I didn't enjoy the taste or feel of it plus I didn't do anything that caused me pleasure while drinking it. Thus I failed to expose my brain to dopamine at the same time I was drinking alcohol and the link between alcohol and pleasure was never formed.

But normal people do find an inherent pleasure in drinking alcohol and for them the surge of dopamine they experience when they take a drink is the most natural thing in the world. I'd have to work on it. My dopamine levels surge when I eat cake with gooey frosting. Or chocolate. Or cookies. Or just plain old table sugar. You get the idea.

What's fascinating to me is that research shows that just as a link can be formed between, say, chocolate and pleasure, so can it be formed between something like broccoli and pleasure. Forging healthy addictions just takes some (or a lot of) effort. If there's a habit you want develop, like exercising regularly or eating more fresh vegetables, you just have to develop a link between that activity or substance and the release of dopamine.

How do you do that? It looks like rewards might help. If you treat yourself to a massage after exercising five days in a row, you can start to build a connection between exercise and feeling good. Or you might need a more immediate connection between the activity and the reward, such as exercising with someone whose company you enjoy or putting your treadmill in front of the tv and watching your favorite show ONLY when exercising.

If you want to eat better, you might develop a weekly potluck of people whose company you love and have them only bring delicious, healthy dishes. Eventually your brain will connect eating well with fun and pleasure.

I realize now that my daily 75-minute exercise routine that looks so disciplined and healthy, really developed out of my battles with depression. Twice in my life depression has taken me over. During those times I felt like absolute crap all the time (angry, crying, numb, panicked, etc.) and walked around like a pretzel of tension and fear except when exercising. For that one hour a day of physical activity I actually felt almost normal. At least my body was able to relax and let some of the tension out, even if my freaked out mind never stoppped worrying. I believe my brain linked physical exercise with dopamine release. The more I exercised, the more I chemically needed it. The difference that exercise made in my depression solidified my devotion to it and now I exercise almost every day for over an hour. It's not discipline or focus or being health-conscious or determination to live longer/be fit. It's a simple chemical addiction and I'm hooked.

So the current research on addiction shows that there are addictions that are bad for you and addictions that are good for you and the chemical mechanism is the same. I find that exciting. I'm excited about the prospect of making addiction work for people in a positive way. If the brain-dopamine mechanism can create addictions to ice cream and french fries then it can create addictions to fresh fruit and jogging. You just have to put some effort into cultivating the link.
p.s. My 2007 resolution is to start drinking coffee and now I know what I have to do to make it stick.

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