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Entirely Unconscious Responses to Alcohol Addiction

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The Alcohol and Drug Debate Rages On: Personality as influenced by environment (or free will), genetic inheritance (or disease), or other? Scientists set out to discern the truth.

Functional magnetic resonance imaging (or fMRI) has been engaged by scientists to study just how much free will an addict has. In one study, neuroscientists worked with recovering alcoholics as their subjects.  The researchers informed the participants that they would be studying how the human brain perceived, interpreted, and processed colour but instead, the researchers introduced a substance with trace amounts of alcohol—consciously undetectable to the human senses—and, using the fMRI, set about to measure brain activity of participants whose brains were registering that olfactory intake of alcohol.

In the brain’s amygdala—about the size of a plump pumpkin seed, seated in the centre of the brain in the hypothalamic region of the temporal lobe—activity was indeed detected. When the participants unwittingly received a smell of the alcohol, the amygdala showed increased activity.

Scientific Finding in Favour of Unconscious Impulses

Now, this part of the brain is located at the site considered responsible for the parasympathetic system, associated with what we know as the fight-or-flight system: in the face of fear/threat, it is this area of the brain which unconsciously responds, by either running away or staying to “fight.” That is, the brain responds without the person voluntarily choosing to respond. In other words, the results of such a study “proved” that the brain of the recovering alcoholic was reflexively, not intentionally, responding to alcohol.

So, for instance, when a person has a snowflake coming toward his/her face, he/she blinks—unconsciously—to prevent the snow from hitting the eyeball. Now, this is out of one’s control. If, say, he/she were to put on ski goggles, then it would be a conscious act…of one’s own free will.  So science is finding that alcohol attraction, and/or the alcoholic’s response to alcohol cannot be attributed entirely to free will.

Scientific Finding in Favour of Conscious Control over Impulses

Moreover, to reinforce the understanding that the alcoholic brain works differently, scientists using fMRIs also studied the parts of the brain responsible for higher-order thinking—finding activity differed there, too. With the fMRIs picking up higher cognitive process activity in parts of the brain such as the prefrontal cortex (the backside of the frontal lobe area, situated directly in front of the motor activity regions of the brain), researchers found that in recovering alcoholics, the prefrontal cortex would become more active—to minimize amygdala activity. Conversely, when the same experiments were done on people who were not recovering/who had not recovered, similar amygdala activity was recorded, but activity in the prefrontal cortex was not. In other words, in the recovering/recovered alcoholic, the cognitive centres were actively influencing the response to alcohol; in the non-recovering/non-recovered alcoholic, the frontal lobe section was not stepping in to consciously influence the response section. Scientific finding: we can have the disease but we can also take control over how we enable or squash the acting on the disease.    

Implications for Treatment of Addiction

Most of us have heard the theory that addiction is a disease.  Those of us in rehab and/or the twelve step programs concede to “powerlessness” over the substance to which we were addicted.  But we also take responsibility for our own actions, for our recovery, for what we do when we have to confront those unconscious calls to use.    We make a conscious decision to abstain.  We seek [through prayer/meditation] to gain, maintain, and improve a conscious contact with our higher power.  And we even pursue therapeutic support—with a therapist, through an addiction treatment centre, etc.—to help us sustain a consciousness over the unconsciousness that is addiction.

Can We Turn Our Will Over and Still Have Self-Control, Too?

As is the conscious contact stage, turning over the will to a power greater than ourselves is a fundamental step in the recovery from addiction process.  Giving up one’s will, following the “thy will be done” approach, is possible (and there are over two million recovering alcoholics and just as many more recovering narcotics addicts to attest to this).  But more, applying will, or self-control, is also required.  This means perhaps turning the desire, need, or urge to use over to a higher power, or coming up with a strategy that works to help stay away from our “drug of choice”.  I know one woman who in the first months of recovery from a potent substance would say, If I want it in fifteen minutes, I can have it.  Then, when fifteen minutes passes, she would say it again, If I want it in fifteen minutes, I can have it.  This did two things for my friend.  First, it took away the deprivation attitude; removed the limitations on the wilfulness of the ego.  For if she was told (or told herself) she could not have/do something, she would want it even more.  Second, it played into the understood phenomenon that the cravings do pass—typically, after about ten to fifteen minutes.

But this approach also worked on another level, to reinforce the good behaviour (also known as classical conditioning), the behaviour involving self-control, or, deferred gratification as demonstrated by my friend with her strategy for abstinence.  For another example, the Stanford University marshmallow experiments, conducted by Professor Walter Mischel, illustrate the self-control reward system: to study duration of delayed gratification and how future success would be impacted by such early self-control behaviour, Mischel’s team had a group of four- to six-year-olds consider the temptation of eating a marshmallow (or Oreo cookie or pretzel stick).  The children were offered the option to eat the treat at the moment it was offered, or, if choosing to wait fifteen minutes, to receive a second of the same treat.  Mischel then tracked these children into adulthood, finding that those children who had waited the fifteen minutes—those children who had delayed their gratification—were more successful, well-rounded, or, as the parents of those children who had delayed gratification longer described them, “more competent”.  As Mischel was surprised to discover, these children grew to be adults who could better handle stress, had better or higher self-esteem, and had made their way to better or higher levels of education and subsequently to better-paying jobs/careers.

The evidence is in that we have unconscious, involuntary biochemical drives more powerful than our unconscious will.  But it is also evidenced that we have some degree of control once we know about the insidious nature of our impulses.  How much control depends on how hard we wish to work to keep on top of them. Or does it?

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