Brain Plasticity Explains
the Neurology of Addictions

The connection between ADD and Addiction has been identified previously on this site. This site also reveals a predisposition to the addiction to certain substances by someone who is ADD or an addict. Their preferred substances make their brains feel more normal or balanced. This page will focus more specifically on how and why addictions actually become neurologically hard wired into our brains, rendering them incredibly challenging to overcome. It also covers the topic of the Limbic System and how brain plasticity so largely influences all of us.

This page is largely my interpretation of the material covered in a book written by Norman Doidge, M.D. entitled The Brain That Changes Itself. It is a fascinating book that helps explain the science of the power of positive thinking and how brain plasticity may facilitate re-wiring of the brain in order to compensate in the most incredible ways. My opinions are also based upon my understanding upon reading about the Limbic System in such books as Deep Survival by Laurence Gonzalez, Younger Next Year by Chris Crowley and Henry S. Lodge, and Life After Death by Depak Chopra.

The Brain That Changes Itself mentions a couple of systems that may come into play in connection to addictions. Pavlov describes the ‘Orienting Response’ as a basic instinct that is a result of survival of the fittest. This response happens when there is sudden change in our surroundings which requires us to interrupt everything and pay attention in order to get our bearings. (1) For example, this would be critical if hunting or being hunted. This response causes our heart rate to decrease for four to six seconds and may call for the release of adrenaline.

Electronic media takes advantage of this human response by bombarding us with games, movies, television programming and commercials which use zoom, sudden noises, cuts and pans at the rate of one per second. These techniques trigger a continuous, without recovery, response that alters our brains. (1) The author of Boys Adrift suggests that video games and the adrenaline produced along with the constant interruption by cell phones has caused changes in the brains of our youth. (Have you noticed how commercials are louder than the normal programming?) This may be one reason television and video games become addictive. We sit down for a minute and before you know it, the entire evening is spent watching television programs that you are not even interested in watching.

In 1950 ‘Pleasure Centers’ were discovered in the limbic system of the brain which is involved in processing emotion. We’ve all heard the term “Dopamine Addict” used in reference to someone that is a thrill seeker, always chasing novelty. The Dopamine system in our brain rewards novelty. (1) It is the pleasure and pain center managed by the Neurotransmitter Dopamine which is also responsible for managing the activity in the Prefrontal Cortex (PFC) area of our brain, or the rational, thinking, organizing part of our brain. I believe you will find that those with ADD and Addictions rely heavily on the Limbic brain center since they are generally deficient in Dopamine, the Neurotransmitter that predominantly fires the PFC.

The Limbic System is our emotional intelligence. It allows us to react instantly to stimulus that is passed down through our DNA from our ancestors, or through our own personal experiences. If we waited for our rational brain to make every decision, we probably wouldn’t survive long. Decision making cannot take place without the guidance of our somatic markers or the emotional tags of our Limbic System. In "A Mind of it's own. How your brain distorts and deceives," Author Dr. Cordelia Fine discusses a client, a sucessful businessman who due to a brain tumor in his Prefrontal Cortex was no longer in touch with his emotionalism. His intellect and reasoning powers remained totally in tact but without the benefit of emotions, he couldn't decide which shampoo to buy.

Neurologists estimate that we receive and are aware of approximately two thousand bits of information per minute. We receive and organize another four hundred billion bits of information per minute for which we have no conscious awareness. (2) This stimulus is organized by attaching an emotional tag to it which is why certain thoughts, sights, sounds or people will call up a particular emotional tag which will cause us to react in a predictable way time and again; sometimes referred to as playing old tapes. The more we think or experience a thing, the more it becomes hard wired into our brains.

The above process filters out all but a tiny fraction of information that we need in order to be in the world and follow our train of thought and desires. These filters allow us to experience self as a separate person with limited beliefs and goals, likes and dislikes. (2) People who are psychic or highly intuitive, people who are savants or prodigies, and on a smaller scale, people who are ADD, right brained and/or very creative all probably have more limited filters. Some times they have even been found to have abnormalities in the right temporal lobe. (I’ve read that the right temporal lobe is where we connect spiritually). For example, savants seemingly connect to a higher source of wisdom or universal information that they could not otherwise possibly know.

Have you ever wondered why an ADD person is so distracted? Like everyone else, they are bombarded with stimulus from all around them. Because their filters are less discriminating, everything vies for their equal attention. On the positive side, they are generally very creative and often times spiritually evolved due to their ability to be in the moment and just allow creation to flow through them.

An electrode implanted into the septal region of the limbic system and turned on causes a powerful euphoria. This system may become ‘turned on’ during pleasant conversation, sexual arousal, falling in love, risk taking adventure or using a substance that would be your drug of choice, i.e. coffee, nicotine, alcohol etc. When these pleasure centers, managed by the Dopamine system, are turned on, everything we experience gives us pleasure. This pleasure is described as a globalization effect. For example, falling in love results in a globalization effect making the sky appear bluer, the sun brighter and every thoughtful gesture takes on a whole new meaning.

Because it is difficult for the ‘pain and displeasure center’ to be firing at the same time as the pleasure center, you tend to overlook things that would normally cause you discomfort. For example, a reformed addict passing through a seedy part of town where he first did drugs will not notice or focus on its squalor. Instead, just revisiting this part of town will cause him to become overwhelmed with carvings so powerful that he may be unable to resist using again-just this one more time. This is an emotional response (tag) to a visual stimulus that had become hard wired in his brain retrieving an old memory that is as real as the original experience.

The spritz of dopamine each time we experience love, arousal, a drug, or a thrill seeking adventure consolidates a neuronal pathway that becomes hardwired into our plastic, malleable brain. This reward system becomes addictive and may include such things as an addiction to thrill seeking and even drama and chaos. This seems to be especially true of the ADD brain seeking adrenaline or dopamine.

Have you known people who seem to love drama? The main reason is that they have become addicted to drama. Each time they re-live and re-tell of a stressful situation, their brain causes a release of adrenaline. I once read that if you have an upset in your life, you should find a good listener and tell your story, really get it all out there. Feel all of the feelings and release them so that you may move on. Even in grieving, they suggest only sharing your most private thoughts and feelings three times. I believe that if you continue to tell your story again and again, that is what causes it to become hardwired in your brain, making it even more challenging to let go.

According to Jill Taylor, Ph.D., even though certain Limbic System programs can and will be triggered automatically, it can be over as quickly as ninety seconds. Once triggered, the chemical released by the brain, surges through the body and there is a physiological experience. For example, if you feel fear or anger, your brain may have called for adrenaline. If after ninety seconds you continue to feel these emotions, it's because you have chosen to let that circuit continue to run by letting your mind hook into it. With discipline, you can stop this drama line by moving back into the present moment. During that ninety seconds focus on where you are feeling the emotion in your body and what it feels like versus your continued thoughts which triggered the reaction in the first place. With practice and discipline, we should be able to slowly unwire these automatic triggered reactions.

Addictions cause changes to the brain by producing a protein called Delta Fos B that accumulates in the neurons until eventually it throws a genetic switch, affecting which genes are turned on or off. This causes irreversible damage to the brain’s dopamine system rendering you more prone to addiction. Running, gambling, porn, drugs, and sex all can lead to this accumulation of Delta Fos B. (1) I’ve read numerous references to the irreversible damage caused to sensitive Neurotransmitter Centers (such as our Dopamine and Serotonin Centers) by not only the use of illegal drugs, particularly Crack Cocaine, Meth, Heroin and Ecstasy, but with the use of prescription drugs for ADD, ADHD, pain management and depression.

Exposure to these experiences or drugs lowers the threshold at which the pleasure center will turn on, filling you with hopeful anticipation. In other words you need less and less to crave more intensely. At the same time, ironically, a tolerance develops which requires more and more of the substance in order for you to achieve the same pleasure that you once received so readily. (1) You’ve probably heard that addicts will chase their first high for the rest of their lives, never able to again achieve that incredible, mind blowing, dopamine explosion that takes place in their pleasure centers.

The effects of cocaine are very much like falling madly in love. It reduces shyness and depression, feels euphoric, enhances everything including self esteem, enthusiasm, an aphrodisiac effect, romantic intoxication, libido, and everything is good. Judgment is impaired. MRI’s show that the part of the brain with the greatest concentrations of dopamine is activated while using cocaine. When the drug is gone or the love relationship ends, withdrawal symptoms take place. (1)

If you saw the movie “What the Bleep” you were introduced to the concept of hardwiring, i.e. the neurons that fire together, wire together. A chemical process called LTP or Long Term Potentiation strengthens connections between certain neurons building a hardwired pathway that becomes ‘the road more travelled.’ This pathway fires up in your brain at the slightest suggestion, a thought, a smell, a vision or a song can evoke an emotional response that will lead you back to another place, time, person or experience. This may ignite cravings and/or emotions that are as powerful as the original experience.

The reverse of this process is LTD or Long Term Depression and is the unlearning required when your love relationship ends, you choose to become sober or in the case of grieving the loss of someone or something. When you have developed a neuronal network, it becomes an efficient self sustaining pathway, and like a habit, it is difficult to unlearn. Grieving is an incredibly long process of un-wiring memories, memories that may have been hard wired in your brain for years. I’ve talked to former Crack users who still experience cravings years later. I believe that there are holistic processes that will facilitate this re-wiring process.

I’m the kind of person who has a need to understand why and how. Once I understand, I am capable of an abundance of compassion for those who suffer at the hand of ADD and or any addiction. I hope that my sharing this information will allow you to not only feel compassion but to become educated so that you may ask the right questions and find the right solutions for your situation.

For a better understanding of brain plasticity, see Brain Chemistry 101 to better comprehend how the brain communicates through the central nervous system.