Is there a new way to understand addiction?

Posted on April 20, 2016 by Addiction Editor

addiction as a learning disorderIn a new book, Unbroken Brain: A Revolutionary New Way of Understanding Addiction, journalist Maia Szalavitz argues that a better way to understand addiction is to view it more as a developmental disorder, like autism or dyslexia. Only then can addiction be effectively prevented and treated.

The book is a skilful mix of science, reporting and personal memoir, drawing not just on 25-plus years of research on addiction and Szalavitz’s extensive reporting, but also her own experiences as an addict in her early 20s, when she was shooting heroin and cocaine as much as 40 times a day. (You can read an excerpt from the book here.) Gizmodo sat down with Szalavitz to learn more about her audacious idea.

The central thesis of the book is that addiction is more like a learning disorder than a disease.

Szalavitz says; “Addiction cannot happen without learning, because learning shapes values over the course of development. If you don’t learn that the drug comforts you or creates pleasure, you cannot become addicted. So on a very basic level, addiction clearly involves an aberrant form of learning. I don’t know a single scientist who would disagree with that, although they prefer to frame it as a disease rather than a disorder. Over time I have had many, many fights with people over the disease model [of addiction].

For me, very early in recovery, it was important to realise that I did not choose what happened. But I also understood that I did make choices over the course of my addiction. It’s more like your will gets impaired, not eliminated. It’s like what happens when you fall in love with a person and your whole sense of what’s important and what’s valuable shifts. The way the brain determines what’s an important goal changes during addiction. Now you prioritise drugs, but that doesn’t turn you into a monster. It just makes you a person who is undergoing a specific form of stress.

Learning isn’t brain damage. You can learn to be an addict, but that doesn’t mean your brain is broken, or that you have a progressive disease that is going to get worse over time. In fact, the data on addiction shows that as you get older, you are more likely to recover”. To read more click here.

Addiction will be discussed at the Australian and New Zealand Addiction Conference 2016, themed Alcohol – Other Drugs – Behavioural Addictions, Prevention, Treatment and Recovery will be held on the Gold Coast from the 19 – 20 May 2016. To view the high quality Conference Program CLICK HERE.

To register your attendance at the conference CLICK HERE.

Hosted by The Australia and New Zealand Mental Health Association promotes and encourages participation from all parts of the sector towards a shared appreciation of what medical, psycho-social and peer-based approaches can offer, through the experiences of service users, clinicians, and researchers alike.

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