Monday, January 30, 2006

Partisan Politics: An Example of Addiction?

I’ll start this rant by referencing an article I found on Democrats and Republicans Both Adept at Ignoring Facts, Study Finds

The authors of the study referenced in that article presented their findings yesterday at the Annual Conference of the Society for Personality and Social Psychology. In short, by monitoring brain activity they found that several brain areas fire rapidly when the subjects were presented with contradictory information from their preferred political candidates prior to the 2004 presidential election, but not the dorsolateral prefrontal cortex, where we do our reasoning and planning. And the process ends with firing the “reward centers” which have long been associated with the neurological responses of addicts when they get a fix.

I also want to make sure to cross-reference some comments and observations from physicist and science-fiction writer David Brin, specifically his “Open Letter to Researchers of Addiction, Brain Chemistry and Social Psychology” and the corresponding discussion “A society of addicts?” on Contrary Brin.

How many times have you wondered, “What the heck is that person thinking?” I know for me it’s pretty common, especially when I’m trying to follow a politically-, socially-, and/or emotionally-charged topic (abortion would be a good example).

A growing body of neurological evidence suggests that we’re simply not thinking.

Are you starting to wonder right now if sometimes you’re one of those people? Or are you already beginning a knee-jerk reaction trying to reconcile positive and negative emotions that will end in dismissing the negative feelings and firing your dopamine reward centers as you breathe a sigh of relief and say, “That’s not me”?

Just checking.

I’m not just willing to say that fanatics of every flavor and stripe are in fact addicts – there’s lots of evidence to support that conclusion, including informal observations of outward behavior. I’m willing to go so far as to say, sometimes that’s all of us – nobody is entirely exempt. When it comes to any topic on which we have strong feelings, especially if there are some contradictions involved (and when are there not, if strong feelings are already present?) we’re junkies, plain and simple.

I’ve been ranting for years that we all need to pause more often to ask ourselves penetrating questions, and then take the time to come up with real answers, each individual for himself or herself. But now, I’m starting to suspect that this may be more important than I had ever imagined. What if that’s our only bulwark against addiction to stupid ideas?

My favorite ex-wife and I had a long-running conversation along the theme, “Everybody has a vice,” or even, “Everybody is addicted to something.” The idea was, everybody is a junkie for at least one thing, and if I haven’t spotted that thing about you yet, then I don’t really know you. And if I haven’t spotted that about myself, then I don’t really know myself either, and I’m probably lying to myself about what my vice is (which, by the way, is “typical junkie behavior,” too).

At this point in my life, I’m comfortable with the idea that everybody is going to be addicted to something, and that the key to a healthier society is not in avoiding those addictions entirely. Rather, I think we would be well served to acknowledge the simple fact that addiction is part of how the human brain operates (hard-wired right into our dopamine receptors), and what we need to do is learn to be proactive about our vices. We need to exercise some awareness, so that we can do some decision-making on the way in.

Everybody is going to be addicted to something – what will you be addicted to? Of course, if you’re old enough to read this, you’re probably well on your way down the path of several addictions, whether you know it or not. I am. And I believe that nobody who has dopamine receptors is exempt. But if we start growing an awareness right now, we may have the chance someday to raise an entire generation who gets the opportunity to choose, instead of stumbling in blindly, or just backing up into their addictions as they shy away from the stuff that seems really bad to them, the way that we all have.

Why does Alcoholics Anonymous (AA), or any other twelve-step program, work for treating addiction? From what I’ve seen, and in light of what I’ve been reading, I’m starting to think that’s because the twelve-step program is an addiction, and it replaces the addiction that we’re there to get treatment for. I think this even explains why you’ll find so many “success story” people who are fanatical, even to the point of being irrational, about the program that helped them.

Consider: any twelve-step program is a formula. Check out a few, and you’ll find that they all follow the same template, because it works. That formula starts with, and along the way reinforces, a message along the lines of, “Your addiction doesn’t really make sense. Stop thinking about it. Thinking is how you rationalized yourself into this mess, and it’s how you rationalize keeping yourself in this mess. And it’s not going to help you get back out.”

And then, when I stop to think about it, it seems that perhaps every twelve-step program follows the neurological formula outlined in that article I linked to above about partisan politics: accept the situation (translation: turn off the prefrontal cortex, if it was firing, and reconcile contradiction by dismissing the negative emotional states); then engage in a process of socially-reinforced behaviors that are deeply and personally rewarding (translation: train yourself to fire the pleasure centers in your brain, loading up your dopamine receptors and leaving you feeling good) as a replacement behavior for whatever addiction inspired joining the program in the first place. Not a bad formula, now that I think about it.

If we consider a broader sense of “addiction” that includes all of the dopamine-influenced behaviors we can enjoy (and potentially become “hooked” on), it makes sense to say that not all addictions are bad. And if I remove the intrinsically negative connotation of addiction, and instead consider it in this broader context, it occurs to me that the problem is not that addiction exists as a phenomenon. Rather, the problem is that I live in a society that’s not real good about training people (me and you and everybody) to manage addictions – to approach them proactively, to keep an eye on them to make sure that they’re not becoming problems, and to make adjustments if they do start to become problems (or at least, we seem to wait until the problems get pretty serious).

I know some amazing people, and I consider myself blessed in that regard. But I also know that I am addicted to amazing people. If I go too long without touching base with one of my amazing people, I start to twitch. I get moody, grouchy, unpleasant, maybe even depressed – until I get a fix, and then I’m okay again. I tell myself that I’m “grounding out” or that I “do it to recharge” but the truth is, I’m a junky for the time I spend with these folks, and sometimes I just need a fix. I’m sure that the psycho-social dynamics are much more complicated, but I’m comfortable boiling it all down to a simple addiction in terms of the actual process and behaviors. I’ve definitely seen myself play out some “addict” behaviors – I’ll go pretty far out of my way for a fix when I need one, even lying to people and jeopardizing my financial stability to get one, if I haven’t been proactive in managing my addiction. And that, to me, is definitely “junky” behavior. Maybe someday, someone will take the time to examine my brain and see if I’m right.

Do I have a “problem”? At this point in my life, I’m inclined to say no, although that has not always been the case. But I’ve structured my life around my “habit” – I make sure I have a steady supply of amazing people who are willing to share some time with me, and a schedule that allows me to indulge my habit. And fortunately, these are folks who also tend to enrich my life – not always, but consistently often. Heck, that’s probably part of how I got hooked in the first place – I consistently feel better afterward than I did before, and if there’s not a little dopamine in there somewhere, then I’m totally mixed up about how this all works.

I guess what I’m really trying to say is that, in my opinion, there definitely is such thing as a “good addiction” and I think anybody who doesn’t have at least one ought to go out and get one, right now. And then take very good care of it.

I can also run off at the keyboard here about how this might tie in with “charismatic cult leaders” and a few other topics. But I’m going to show a little restraint, and instead just say this: not all addictions involve harmful chemical substances. Some involve ideas, behaviors, or situations. And not all addictions are intrinsically bad or harmful. It’s up to us, individually and in groups, to recognize and understand these phenomena. And then, we can start putting “addiction” to work enriching our lives, instead of just using it to hurt ourselves.

At least, that’s what Simon says.




At 9:07 AM, January 30, 2006, Anonymous jsims said...

I always find it so interesting how societal labels can have labels themselves. Labels such as 'addictions' and 'sometimes' or 'most of us'. I mean, I know it is all speculation and discovery, but it also appears to me that one of the biggest 'addictions' is to temper our speaking and 'moderate' our opinions. I will say, as openly and committedly as I can, that human beings are machines, at least partially. We have physical, chemical and neurological structures designed to a) survive and b) reporduce. Now, is there more than that? I 'think' so, but that is another topic. As for the topic of 'addiction' I can say that it is a word that gets bad press. I mean, like Simon said, we are all addicted to something, and studies, as well as common sense, show this. We have dopamine receptors and pleasure centers for a reason. We become addicted to things like food (usually a specific kind), sex (which is built in), sleep, sugar, video games (or is that just me)... Or in Simon's case, people and interaction. I agree with the sentiment that what is missing is awareness and taking responsibility for what we are addicted to, and how we respond to those addictions. Because we are 'addicted' to avoiding responsibility and blaming, we have no control over those addictions, and at best, pretend they are not there. At worst, and destroyed by them. Are addictions good or bad? That is the wrong questions, some are and some are not. And some are 'bad' only because they are out of control (overeating in the US is a major one). Humans are a funny bunch. Arguing over things like 'addictions' and 'good vs bad' (both of which are important, don't get me wrong). But often we (because I AM one of them) forget that we are addicts, and get taken advantage by others who know this fact as well (Cult leaders, Tobacco industries, etc..). The solution, as Simon alluded to, is not to avoid addictions, but to take an active role in choosing them, and monitoring how we are influenced by them.
SIDE NOTE: I am addicted to good people as well, and am honored and blessed to know and be friends with so many.
-- Jay

To understand recursion, we must first understand recursion.

At 4:14 AM, January 31, 2006, Blogger mansilight said...

I guess addiction is a subtle change of power between the subject and the object.As long as I want the icecream, I am okay.(power with the conscious me) The moment the Icecream has the power I am dragged to it.I speak of icecream becuase I have just fought off this addiction .I did not use a twelve step program or a substitute.As Simon says it may not be harmful . What I got was addiction is like not being conscious-letting your lower brain respond automatically to the stimulus. IT takes over. YOU are missing. The whole point of using the word addiction is to say that the behavior has you in its control.Repeating behavior regardless of consequence is addiction.I guess in common usage the word does have a negative connotation .
As simon says I wouldn't tell people to go ahead and get addicted to something but I would say fill up your time with things You really want to do rather than with things that want you to do stuff with them.Wow that is a good qoute flying off the keyboard! hope simon likes this comment.

At 4:42 AM, January 31, 2006, Blogger Simon Ayesse said...

I would say that I'm not in the habit of commenting on my own posts, but since this makes twice in one week, I guess that would be a lie.

In any case, Mansi makes an excellent point -- perhaps I am too quick to ascribe the status of "addiction" to anything that merely resembles addiction? For certain, I am missing something significant in the relationship between subject and object. I don't think that I'm ready to revise my opinion yet, but I am definitely wondering if I should.

More comments, from anybody, please?

I have some thinking to do...


At 11:07 PM, February 27, 2006, Anonymous Anonymous said...

An addiction can be healthy or unhealthy, depending on how one's life is affected by it. I think an addiction can also be towards other things besides objects, such as feeling an emotion. My question is how do you prevent, or maybe not necessarily prevent, but reduce the emotion that you deem is unhealthy? Love, for instance, is very addictive. Sometimes love can be too intense or obsessive. Why does this happen in some cases, but not in others? Some might say that you can never love too much, but when it controls your life and dictates your thoughts and actions you might think otherwise. When the object of your infatuation brings out the worst in you and makes you do things you never thought you would do... When it fills your mind with irrational thoughts, how do you break the habit? How do you cure it?

Here is a quote that seems to relate:
I am your constant companion. I am your greatest helper or heaviest burden. I will push you onward and upward, or drag you down to failure. I am completely at your command. Ninety percent of the things you do might just as well be turned over to me, and I will be able to do them quickly and correctly. I am easily managed, show me exactly how you want something done and after a few lessons I will do it automatically. I am the servant of all great people and alas! Of all failures as well. I am not a machine, though I work with all the precision of a machine, plus the intelligence of a man. You can run me for profit or run me for ruin - it makes no difference to me. Take me, train me, be firm with me and I will place the world at your feet. Be easy with me and I will destroy you. Who am I?
I am Habit. - Anonymous

Until one learns to break the chain of an addiction or habit one is lost; unless the habit or addiction is worth being lost in.

At 4:01 AM, March 01, 2006, Blogger Simon Ayesse said...

"My question is how do you prevent, or maybe not necessarily prevent, but reduce the emotion that you deem is unhealthy?"

Someone suggested to me once the prospect of "a life free from the tethers of emotion." It was suggested in such a way as to imply that this was a very desirable thing. And yet, I was shocked and appalled by the prospect: what good is a life without emotion?!

Can you already see how I misunderstood? If so, then you're a long way ahead of me -- it took me almost two decades to notice the difference. It wasn't a life "without emotion" that was being offered, but a life "without the tethers of emotion."

So, what's the difference?

Consider an event from my life: I am walking down the street, when a large, angry, tough-looking guy, without provocation, strikes me hard as he passes me -- and then turns to confront me, fists ready. I run through an expectable range of emotion -- surprise, pain, anger, fear, perhaps even a touch of real rage. But what happens next...?

Perhaps this includes a shade of what Mansi referred to when she mentioned the relationship between subject and object. Putting it in terms more familiar to me, am I "at cause" or "at effect"?

If emotion chooses for me, rage rules my day. It's fight-or-flight time; either I run as fast as I can, or I do my best to take this f*cker down.

What other option is there? What if I pause to experience and appreciate all of those emotions, and then look a little further? In this case, I take a breath as I feel my adrenaline spike -- my heart rate jumps, my hands are half-closed, my mouth is going dry, and I've already shifted my stance a little lower. And then, as all of these feelings are washing through me, I look outside of myself -- beyond my immediate emotions -- to see what else is beyond. And then, I see that this man is having an incredibly bad day -- one far worse than mine -- and he is so tangled in his own emotions that all he can think to do is to pick a fight with a complete stranger.

And then, I know what to do. I meet his eyes, open my hands, relax my shoulders. I exhale. Palms open, I shrug, and let my eyes say something like, "You're right -- this sucks."

Together, we laugh -- at each other, and at our selves. I honestly can't say who laughed first, but it felt good. Nobody bleeds, and we walk our separate ways -- free, for the moment, from "the tethers of emotion."

Love -- and the passion that comes with it -- can be like this, too. It is true that I go out of my way to let love guide my course. Love informs me to what is worth my attention, my action, my life. But again -- first I feel, and then feeling, I look beyond just me -- and I choose.

If passion makes all of my choices for me -- rather than just informing me about choices that need to be made -- then I am living inside the circle that passion has drawn for me. But if I remember to breath, and to look for just a moment at what lies beyond my immediate emotion, then a wider range of choices opens up before me.

Understand: this does not necessarily mean that my choice will be any different in the end. Often, my passionate choice is the choice that I want. The difference is in me, in the relation between subject and object. Did I take the time to choose, or did passion choose for me? Am I advocate, or victim?

And now, I'm going to circle back to the original point I was reaching for in my posting -- a point I think I may have missed, at least partly. What I am trying to say is that this is an example of a "well trained" addiction. I am no less addicted to a passionate life -- a life without passion is anathema to me, and I would as soon live without air as without passion.

I want to clarify a possible confusion between "choosing" and "thinking" -- this is a subtle point. I am addicted, and I am following the addict's pattern. There is no long-term planning going on. Conflicting emotional states arise, and the prefrontal cortex does not fire. Instead, I reconcile conflicting emotions (accept, exhale), and move on to fire the reward centers (giving rise to a fantastically good feeling).

The difference is that I have put in the time before the event to train my addiction, and my responses, to leave me living "at cause" rather than "at effect" -- to expose me to a wider range of (still entirely emotional) responses, and leave myself feeling like the agent in my life, rather than like the victim of my emotional states.

This is one way that I take a potentially crippling addiction, and turn it into one of the great (positive) driving forces in my life -- not shackles that bind me, but a tremendous source of joy that I may return to, again and again.

Living "free from the tethers of emotion" I don't feel any less -- if anything, I feel more -- more joy, more potential, more possibility.

I do not mean by this to imply that I have perfected this understanding. Quite the contrary -- many times, I look back and realize that I have allowed passion to choose for me. And almost always, in those cases I am looking back with regret. Each of those can be a lesson, and a reminder -- to be mindful of my own self, to continue to reinforce the positive, and use it to replace the negative patterns that I wish to live beyond. In this way, I can strive to live better than I have.

And that, quite frankly, feel good. Heck, maybe I'm even addicted to that.




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