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