Oct 26, 2008
Addiction to Fun
The word “addiction” is used all too loosely in modern America. From its
traditional applications conjuring up images of chemically dependent social
delinquents, to 5-year-olds refusing to put down a PlayStation controller, addiction is
now a term that encompasses countless habits and behaviors. Despite its perhaps
overly broad use as a word, scientists have actually come to agree with laymen:
addiction today is a very broad concept that collectivizes people from all walks of life.
Today, classical addiction to mood-altering drugs is merely one type of addiction
which is explained by the same mechanisms as addictions to shopping, sex, or
gambling. Thanks to sensationalized media, Americans are also quickly becoming
aware of the newest hook for their youth: video games. Video gaming, like the above
activities, can become an addiction and it has already become necessary to educate the
public on its realities.
Despite their apparent differences, all of the above addictions have their root in
the brain. All brain activity, from the regulation of involuntary motions to the
sensation of pain to the abstract pondering of relativity, is conducted by neurons, which
are the individual cells of the brain. Moreover, neurons have to communicate in a style
not unlike “playing telephone” in order to accomplish anything. The method of
communication, or the telephone line, is via neurotransmitters, which are molecules
that jump from one neuron to the next. This activity occurs all over the brain billions
of times per day.
There is an ability to modify the communication among neurons.
Neuromodulators are substances which change the efficacy of the neurotransmitters.
They can be excitatory or inhibitory, which means that neuromodulators can make
neurons “talk” more or less. Many are naturally occurring in the brain, such as
endorphines. Endorphines are inhibitory because they limit the transmission of the
neurotransmitter for the sensation of pain. One of the triumphs of modern medicine
has been to artificially introduce neuromodulators. Anti-depression medications, for
example, specifically inhibit the neurotransmitter for depression.
This possibility has been known, if not scientifically explained, for centuries.
Cocaine, for instance, is an excitatory neuromodulator which causes a massive release
of dopamine, the neurotransmitter for the sensation of pleasure and reward. Dopamine
is naturally released in any rewarding event: eating after extended hunger and sexual
climax are two of the most common of such events. More importantly, dopamine is
the key neurotransmitter in addictions.
Traditionally addiction was split into two types, chemical and behavioral.
Chemical dependency referred to alcoholism and hard drug addictions, while
behavioral addictions were the label given to destructive habits in activities like
shopping or gambling. Today, due to their numerous common qualities, the two are
collectively labeled as addiction. To this end, psychologist Iain Brown has developed
what he calls a “hedonic management model” which accounts for addictions of all
varieties. This theory unites all forms of addictions into one model which explains
addiction as a warping of cognitive processes. In Brown's model, addiction is defined
as the mismanagement of the pursuit of pleasure.1 Physiologically, the key feature of
addiction is arousal, which is measured by heart rate.2 Therefore, activities which raise
arousal can potentially become addictive. Common to all addictions, in Brown's view,
are twelve key features:
1. Everyone learns to pursue “good hedonic tone,” or pleasurable experiences, in
the normal pursuit of happiness.
2. Individuals have varying predispositions to addiction due to psychological and
3. Addictions are initiated when the addict discovers they can exploit the activity
to maintain pleasurable sensations.
4. Addicts choose their activity based on availability and social support for the
activity, as well as the unique factors that also determine predispositions.
5. Addictions develop through events which create the desire for the modified
“hedonic tone.” As the activity continues, salience (the sense of “control” the
activity has over the individual) makes the addict believe that the activity is the
only rewarding one. As salience increases, so does tolerance.
6. Addictions evolve into cycles in which classical conditioning reinforces the
activity, and cognitive distortions eliminate barriers to the activity. That is,
Pavlovian cues begin to have similar effects to the activity and produce
cravings. Additionally, people will change their belief systems to account for
their need for the activity.
7. When addiction is fully established, salience is so great that the activity
becomes “virtually the sole source of reward” and begins to be used to avoid
8. Recovery requires “a radical change in the policy and style of management of
hedonic tone.”10 This change is two-fold: the addict's decision-making must
suddenly change for the better, and the addictive activity must be replaced with
a number of other rewarding activities, or else the addict must suffer short-term
dysphoria by quitting the activity entirely.11
9. As recovery progresses, the risks of reversion (the return to full addiction) and
of cross-addiction (developing a different addiction from the previous one)
decrease over time.12
10. After any addiction, despite how successful the recovery or how long the addict
has gone without, “there always remains a residual vulnerability. Unusual cues
... can trigger a flashback ... with a full and rapid reinstatement” of the
11. “Addictions are not habits, obsessions, compulsions, or attachments and can be
12. No addiction is fully good nor fully bad. “Even the most destructive have some
secondary beneficial effects. ... [Also,] some positive addictions may be very
constructive for individuals and societies
Brown's model also accounts for many of the individual characteristics of
virtually all behavioral addictions. Brown mentions the vast increase in heart rate seen
in blackjack players as an example of his mechanics of gambling addiction.
Although the language of Brown's model seems obtuse, his model also accounts for the
behavior of addicts. Brown accounts for the distortion of reality often documented as
addictions intensify. For example, an addict may continue using a drug under the
excuse that their addicted friend would be lonely if the former did not join their
Mark Griffiths, a British psychologist, uses a similar model. To him, all
addictions (chemical and behavioral alike) have the following properties: salience,
mood modification, tolerance, withdrawal, conflict and relapse.behavior of addicts, they only superficially cover the biological mechanics of
addiction: that is, what happens in the brain of an addict as his or her habit forms and
sustains itself. Recalling the earlier discussion of neurological biology, addictions
hinge on specific neurotransmitters. Modern scientists attribute virtually all addictive
activity to dopamine, though it is believed among some that serotonin (a different
neurotransmitter for pleasure) also has a part to play. Brown cites experiments which
found arousal in the autonomic and cortical nervous systems associated with
behavioral addictions. As a result, any activity seen as enjoyable could theoretically
become addictive. Naturally, activities that facilitate larger dopamine releases stand a
greater risk for becoming addictive.
For many years it has been observed that vulnerability to alcoholism is
heritable, but only recently have scientists begun to understand the mechanism causing
that vulnerability. Currently, scientists believe that mutation of the A1 and DRD2
genes reduce the number of neurological receptors for dopamine, which means that
people choose commonly addictive behaviors in seeking compensatory boosts of
dopamine. This also gives way to the theory that satiety and tolerance are caused by
the brain “rewiring” itself to have more dopamine receptors, which causes the brain to
no longer be overwhelmed with dopamine with a certain level of activity or chemical
dose. Moreover, since this genetic theory only affects dopamine, the A1 and D2
mutations allow for the facilitation of any form of addiction, not just chemical ones