The Biology of Desire: Why Addiction Is Not a Disease by Marc Lewis

23214265Marc Lewis is a neuroscientist and professor of developmental psychology. His book Memoirs of an Addicted Brain: A Neuroscientist Examines His Former Life on Drugs, was the first to blend memoir and science in addiction studies. The Biology of Desire is his second book.

After reading and finding myself fascinated with the harrowing account of a new mother wrestling with her alcoholic demons in Drunk Mom, I saw that this book was coming out, and felt just in the right mood for it. Now I feel like I could go out and help some addicts find their synaptic pathways back to freedom. But, I’m sure you need a bit more training than reading two books.

(If you are looking for a good fictional account of alcoholism, The Empty Room is wonderful.)

Some things you will learn if you read this book:

1. Contrary to popular belief, addiction is not a disease. This is the premise of Lewis’s book. He believes that treating addiction as a disease is preventing many people from being able to ‘recover’. In his book, Lewis uses the personal stories of 5 different ‘recovered’ addicts, combined with explanations of how the brain works and changes as we learn new things and form new habits, to show us how addiction can happen and also how it can be overcome.Β Addiction is really just a very serious habit that has formed over time.

Brains just do what hundreds of millions of years of evolution have determined to be useful, and that includes identifying things that taste good or feel good to us… Addictions may be the uncanny result of a brain doing exactly what it’s supposed to do.

2. The brain is very cool. Lewis explains not only that it is forever changing and developing depending on our experiences every moment of the day, but also how it does this and what it means for the way we behave. Many of the habits we form over the years even make up what we call our ‘personality’.

3. The biology of desire. In order for strong habits to form, we have to feel strong emotions connected to the action. Desire is one of the strongest emotions we have, and is “evolution’s agent for getting us to pursue goals repeatedly”. Desire is the emotion that can get addicts into their mess, and it is also the one that can get them out.

4. Most of the recovered addicts that the author has spoken to over the years would rather “think of themselves as free – not cured, not in remission”. Rather than ‘recovering’, Lewis believes it is more accurate to say that moving beyond addiction is a developmental process. In this book, you will get a sense as to Lewis’s ideas as to how best to help an addict out-grow their addiction. And, the good news is that it’s really not rocket science. Anyone can help, if they know what to do. (That’s not to say, of course, that getting over addiction is easy, or even that everyone is able to do it – some people die before they get to the point of looking for help.)

… addiction need be no more than a stage in the development of the self… a few former addicts have told me that they wouldn’t be who they are now without the struggles they endured while trying to quit.

5. Studies have shown that people are far more likely to become addicts or to commit suicide if they have had emotional trauma in the past or can see no hope for the future. This doesn’t really come as a surprise, but Lewis takes this and applies it to his own work with addiction; in order to overcome addiction, addicts need to be able to see their lives progressing, “from a meaningful past to a viable future”.

I found this book so interesting, but it is not the kind of book you can skim; there’s a lot of brain science going on. A lot of it gets repeated several times, in different ways, so that by the end of the book I felt I had it figured out. I could almost feel the pathways in my brain changing and growing as I was reading this book.

The Biology of Desire also made me see some of my own habits in a different way; a couple of them bordering on compulsive, which he talks about as being the final stage of becoming an addict – not being able to control your impulses. Luckily, my habits/addictions are pretty tame. For example, I have always indulged in a night-time snack while reading my book after all my kids are in bed. This has been going on since they were born (my oldest is 14 now). No matter how many times I tell myself there is no need for me to continue with this habit any more, when the time comes I just can’t seem to get my mind off it until I find myself a snack. It really has become ingrained in me after all this time. Now I know that my desire to stop must not yet be greater than my desire for that snack.

Do any of you have any habits you’d like to confess to? What triggers them? Have you ever had a hard time changing any of your habits?Β I know a lot of us have bookish habits of one kind or another, but, if you’re anything like me, there isn’t a lot of desire there to change or stop them. πŸ™‚

*Thanks to the publisher for sending me this book in exchange for an honest review!

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40 thoughts on “The Biology of Desire: Why Addiction Is Not a Disease by Marc Lewis

  1. whatmeread says:

    I don’t think there’s anything wrong with your little snack at night. You can free yourself by just giving yourself permission to have it! This book sounds really interesting.

    • Naomi says:

      Most of the time, I don’t think much about it. It’s only when there’s nothing to snack on in the house, but I just can’t seem to focus until I’ve scrounged something up (which I’m good at) that I start to wonder about it… (Oh, and also when I go overboard on the snacking.) πŸ™‚

      • whatmeread says:

        I can relate to that! I don’t have a regular snacking schedule and often I don’t snack, but I DO have a problem with stopping eating things once I’ve started on them.

      • Naomi says:

        I think that’s pretty common. He talks about that whole thing in the book – it’s the compulsivity that keeps us going. For example, an alcoholic takes the first few drinks out of desire and pleasure, but after that he no longer drinks for pleasure, “he drank because his dorsal striatum was converting dopamine into a behavioural command”. I’m guessing the same happens when we continue to eat past the point of feeling sick. (By the time you get to that part, you know what he’s talking about.)

  2. Emily J. says:

    I have a sugar habit. I would, in theory, like to quit sugar, but in practice, I really have no desire to stop eating sugar. It tastes too good!

  3. cravesadventure says:

    Funny you say that πŸ™‚ I usually take at least 30 minutes to read before I go to bed. Last night I was craving a piece of chocolate while reading and got up and got a piece. It probably did not help that I was reading a mystery that had cooking and eating throughout the chapters I read (i.e. chocolate strawberry pie, pimento cheese dip, greek salad, etc.).

    I have a habit that really throws me off and hope I am not alone. I learned from a young age that you go up stairs on the right and come down on the left – same as walking on the sidewalk. I have some encounters lately that have just thrown me off and these people do not move to their side so I end up moving to go around them. Is this weird or not?!?

    Happy Day – Enjoy πŸ™‚

  4. Geoff W says:

    Interesting, I definitely feel like I should check this out in the near future, especially having read Her Best-Kept Secret last month! (I think this is one of the two you recommended.)

  5. TJ @ MyBookStrings says:

    I find points 4 and 5 particularly interesting. I can imagine that treatment for addiction would vary depending on whether you look at it as a disease or a habit. I have the habit of getting up extra early to have a cup of coffee. But I have never had the desire to change this. I cherish my morning coffee and the quiet minutes before the house erupts into chaos. This “addiction” (not to take the word lightly) is helping me keep my sanity…

    • Naomi says:

      That’s a good habit to have! I have tried in the past to create that particular one, but have generally failed. I do it every once in a while when I need to. I tend to go the other way, and stay up too late, because having the house to myself at night is so nice. (This is also probably the reason why I find it hard to get up extra early in the morning.) πŸ™‚

  6. JacquiWine says:

    The book sounds very interesting, especially given your comments about the way it has made you see your own habits in a different light.

    Book buying is a bit of a compulsive thing for me. I managed to go for three months without buying any while doing my first round of TBR20 earlier this year, but then I went into the new Foyles in London and succumbed to temptation! As for other habits, I tend to crave dark chocolate at the end of my evening meal. Just a square or two will do, that’s enough to satisfy me. πŸ™‚

    • Naomi says:

      The book made me think about what comes before my cravings, what they make me think about, and other emotions or actions the habits might be tied to. Thanks for sharing yours! Two very understandable habits, in my opinion. πŸ™‚

  7. Buried In Print says:

    I first came across this idea in Norman Doidge’s book, The Brain that Changes Itself, and I would definitely like to add Mark Lewis’ to my TBR (as well as Doidge’s new book, which sounded just fascinating in a recent episode of “The Next Chapter” on CBC).

    The idea of being “free” rather than in “recovery” rings true for me. I’ve been working hard at changing some habits in my life this year, some bookish ones included (including my insistance upon reading scores and scores of library books while my own books go unread, which is certainly a privileged “problem” to have, and it might not even be a “problem” were it not for the matters of volume and scale!).

    It feels like a long and demanding process, even with relatively simple patterns, but I do get ridiculously pleased when I see a pattern of change that makes me smile about the possibilities ahead, and then I believe that I can make more substantial changes too. And when books are a big part of your life, making a change on that front is big news, right?

    • Naomi says:

      He mentions Doidge in the book as being one of the authors to bring the term “neuroplasticity” into the spotlight. His new book sounds good, doesn’t it? Another interesting sounding book Lewis mentions on the same topic is The Woman Who Changed Her Brain by Barbara Arrowsmith. It’s about the cognitive exercises she devised for herself in order to overcome her severe learning disabilities. Very cool.

      I have that same library “problem” as you. Every time my hold list gets low, I tell myself I’m not going to add any new ones until I read some of my own books, but I can never do it. Sigh… It is exciting when you can finally make some headway!

  8. River City Reading says:

    Oh, this sounds SUPER interesting. I wonder if this book is causing a bit of controversy, since the idea of addiction as a disease/disorder is once that seems so widely accepted. Definitely want to check this out.

    • Naomi says:

      I get more the feeling that this idea is kind of on the outskirts, but making its way in. At the end, he describes a new project in the works based on this theory. I’ll be curious to hear how it works out!
      Also, he talks about the good things that have come from describing addiction as a disease, like more funding for recovery programs and research, as well as helping to reduce the stigma attached to addiction. But, then he goes on to explain the limitations of it. I liked that he didn’t rail against the theories he disagreed with – his scientific explanations made it all pretty clear on their own (I thought so, anyway).

      • Shaina says:

        Yes, echoing Shannon’s thoughts here! I feel like I’ve recommended this book to everyone and their mother, so apologies if I’ve already rec’d it or you’e already read it, but Chasing the Scream by Johann Hari does a great job explaining the mechanisms behind addiction and how recovery isn’t as simple as “take away the drug, go through withdrawal, be free.” The book covers more (history of the war on drugs, etc.), but I think you might especially enjoy those chapters!

        This one is going on my list. πŸ™‚

  9. The Cue Card says:

    Wow I bet the author has stirred up some controversy saying that alcoholism is not a disease. Arent people afraid to say that — as it’s not looked on as politically correct? What about families that have alcoholism run in their family …

    • Naomi says:

      He does address the genetic aspect of it, and I don’t think he disputes the fact that some people are more predisposed to addiction than others, but not because it’s a disease. A lot of it is environment, but I think there are also some people who have less impulse control, etc. I tried to find exactly where he talked about that, but I wasn’t able to, so don’t quote me on it. πŸ™‚

  10. Cecilia says:

    Hi Naomi! I’m hoping to finally catch up!
    This sounds like a fascinating book. I’ve been thinking about this a lot, parenting my 11 year old, who to me seems easily “addicted” to things like sweets, crunchy snacks, video games, etc. I find it interesting that this book says addictions are natural behaviors. It’s a fine line, I wonder, between addiction and passion? Because I wonder about my husband’s “addiction” to his work, or my son’s “addiction” to Minecraft, two things that give them their creative outlets and a feeling of satisfaction and challenge. It is this addiction (or “desire”) that can lead people to excel at things they love too, I wonder.

    So funny you mention snacking! Just last night I gave in to my one “sin,” which is chips and wine late at night. Every once in a while I’ll do that – pair up Doritos (or chips and salsa) with a glass of wine, and I never feel great once I am done.

    • Naomi says:

      Hi Cecilia! It’s good to hear from you! πŸ™‚
      This book was so interesting, and I was thinking about everyone’s habits/addictions/passions as I was reading it, too. I worry about the internet/video game addiction for my children more than anything else right now. Maybe addiction is like the saying – too much of a good thing isn’t so good anymore? Understanding how habits are formed in our brains helped me to see how they could be undone if the need ever arises (obviously, for smaller addictions such as video games). I can also see how I might be able to change my own snacking habit, but I’ll just store that information until I feel like I really need it. πŸ˜‰
      It definitely works in good ways, too, I think. If you get a lot of pleasure in your work, it could lead to you working more, which could lead to promotions, discoveries, etc. Same idea, I think, just extreme and unwanted in the case of addiction to drugs/alcohol/food/gambling.

  11. Carolyn O says:

    I was just talking about this subject with friends earlier this week; this sounds a little bit like a book I cannot for the life of me remember the name of (which I also want to read) that I think argues, like this book, that addiction is not exactly a disease, but (maybe not like this book) very much tied to environmental factors. Gah. I wish I could remember the name of the book or the author. But now I want to read this one too! Thanks!

  12. Rachel B says:

    this sounds like a very interesting book. I’m not sure I would agree with the premise that addiction isn’t a disease… I’m pretty comfortable considering it a DSM diagnosable illness. But I’d be interested to hear the author’s ideas. I’m going to go to a big conference on addiction in October. I wonder if I can read this book before then…

    • Naomi says:

      You could definitely read it by then – it’s not too long. And, you might be able to bring an interesting perspective to the table! If you end up reading it, let me know if it influences the way you see addiction!

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