Addiction is Just a Word
“They talk of my drinking but never my thirst”
One of the essential things I’ve learned is choice is a distraction, and I use “life hacks” to limit the distraction of choices. I use just an iPhone to write these articles. I wear the same clothes nearly every day. We passed on our car last year in favor of the bus, train, and putting one foot in front of the other. If it were up to me, I would live in a 600-square-foot dwelling and own only enough personal stuff I could fit in a backpack.
But when it comes to minimizing distractions, I’m a novice. Imagine the focus of when your only motivation left is to get your next drink, score your next mood-altering substance, or win the next match. There are some who’ve found a novel method to simplify their world. They have narrowed their needs to the extent they have one motivation, one solution to their problems, one thing to think about.
Did you know there are more experts in neurochemistry on Twitter than in academic biology? Addiction, according to graduates of the University of iPhone, is craving for constant dopamine hits. This is a simplistic and inaccurate explanation of the functions of dopamine, but I suppose it works as slang for a pursuit of a continuous source of pleasure, gratification, or relief.
The description of addiction I and others my age grew up with was functional: biological habituation to the use of illegal drugs. In more recent generations, legal drugs that act crudely on your biochemistry have been added, specifically, alcohol, nicotine, and overprescribed mood-altering drugs.
To define addiction as substance abuse makes the remedy uncomplicated in theory—get addicts off the drug. Getting people off physical addiction is straightforward: lock them in a ward and help them through withdrawal symptoms. Unfortunately, for addicts, their loved ones, and whoever is paying for the treatment, substance withdrawal is the easy part. Recidivism rates are such that the main beneficiaries of substance-abuse treatment are treatment facilities. Their best customers are repeat customers. While it sounds glib, the recidivism rate was soberly explained by Gregory Bateson: “The cause of alcoholism is sobriety.” People self-medicate for a reason, and the reason doesn’t disappear when the physical dependency does. A smidgen better than useless, the chief reason residential substance-abuse treatment remains popular is as a handy tool for judges and families to offload the problem abuser for a time.
But what about outpatient clinicians? They, too, need to pay rent and buy groceries. Enter behavioral addictions: gambling, video games, sex, porn, over-eating, sugar, social media, smartphone use, the Internet, work, and other behaviors people don’t like when other people do them.
What is Addiction?
Addiction as a cliché is seen as risky behavior, but that’s true only at the superficial level. It’s the opposite of risky behavior. Addiction is the compulsion to maintain your current condition: a level of alcohol or nicotine in your blood; gambling for the big score; checking your cell phone while ignoring your immediate environment; the pursuit of steady external validation with good grades or cheering fans. No matter how many times you lose all your money, you keep gambling. No matter how many times you awaken with a hangover or behavioral regrets, you resume drinking. No matter how many awards or championships you win, you keep performing or playing. No matter how many times you gorge on junk food and purge in the toilet, you keep gorging.
Addiction is the pursuit of maintenance of well-being, but well-being is avoidance of change, well-being is keeping your biology or psychology in a steady-state even when that steady state is harmful.
Behavioral addictions as regenerative feedback loops
In the fifties, the field of cybernetics was hatched. Named by Norbert Wiener, a mathematics professor at MIT, the name came from the Greek word for “steersman.” Early cybernetics was based on the mathematics of error correction or error amplification following signal feedback. If you’re steering a ferry boat from Seattle to Bainbridge Island, you’re going to aim towards the Bainbridge ferry landing. When windy, the ferry might drift off course. The difference between the direction to the landing and your current heading is negative feedback, used by the helmsman to steer back towards the landing. Positive feedback increases the difference. Given the same circumstances, positive feedback would have you increase the inaccurate direction to the ferry landing.
In their conversion to colloquial use, the terms negative and positive feedback lost their original meaning. The common use is positive feedback is a compliment and negative feedback is criticism. To make these terms more evident, I prefer the accepted substitutes of corrective for negative and regenerative for positive.
How feedback affects behavior
Addictions are vivid examples of being caught in a regenerative feedback loop. You’re at the casino and you’re losing money at the Blackjack table. Each hand you lose, you double your bet in an attempt to win back all your losses at once. If you acknowledged corrective feedback, you’d have to conclude gambling is a poor investment strategy. In contrast, using regenerative feedback, each turn you double your bet.
The regenerative feedback loop is behind all addictive behavior. If you suffer from anxiety, you might become anxious about being anxious, commence rapid breathing, and wind yourself into a full panic attack, whereas corrective interventions would be slow breathing, meditation, and other calming techniques.
How addiction happens
“In principle, the homeostatic controls of biological systems must be activated by variables which are not in themselves harmful. The reflexes of respiration are activated not by oxygen deficiency but by relatively harmless CO2 [carbon dioxide] excess.” —Gregory Bateson
Bateson is explaining that in biology, because the absence of something (oxygen in this case) in natural systems may be dangerous, corrective feedback comes as a signal rather than as an immediate danger. In culture, on the other hand, for example, introducing a foreign chemical to the body such as alcohol or nicotine, or introducing gambling to human psychology, there are no evolved corrective feedback mechanisms, no harmless signals akin to an excess of carbon dioxide that causes an intake of oxygen.
Evolution of a species depends on natural corrective feedback mechanisms that culture lacks. If you’ve been hungry for a long time, or you have psychological desires for food that survive past satisfying your hunger, short of extreme discomfort or death, there are no natural signals to stop eating. If you’re used to eating beyond satisfying hunger, or you’re used to glancing at your phone every three minutes, you no longer notice excess.
Misreading of signals
You encounter a contradiction when you attempt to maintain your mood through regenerative rather than corrective measures. You end up inverting the meaning of the feedback. The more money you lose at the craps table, the more you bet to attempt to maintain your wealth. If your substance abuse stops maintaining your wellbeing, you take it up a dangerous notch.
Addiction results from a subconscious misreading of signals or misunderstanding of the solution. You do the opposite of correction. When the ferry is moving away from Bainbridge Island, you steer away from Bainbridge Island. When you become anxious, rather than taking slow long breaths, you increase your short rapid breaths. When your marriage is breaking up because you have become controlling and abusive, you attempt to maintain it by becoming more controlling and abusive. If you’re drinking because you’re depressed, your solution is more drinking. If video games overtake your time because you’re too anxious to live outside a domain you can control, you attempt to overcome the consequences of incessant gaming with an increase in gaming.
Addiction is just a word
Addiction is just a word, short for attempting to maintain well-being by doubling down on the problem behavior as the solution. Flipping the meaning of error signals, from corrective to regenerative feedback, is not limited to the concept we call addiction. It’s also an element in other areas of emotional problems (some already mentioned), such as panic attacks, depression, obsessive-compulsive behaviors, as well as domestic violence and other family dysfunctions.
As stated above, there’s no harmless corrective feedback in culture akin to carbon dioxide as a signal to breathe. Nor is there a threshold where another drink or another video game switches from relaxing and enjoyable to a failed solution, or when beneficial familial interdependence becomes (in counselor jargon) co-dependence. Being human is not for wimps.
Behaviors that attempt to maintain well-being, which get labeled negatively, will always be with us, all of us. Rather than regard them as mental illnesses or the domain of the weak or oppressed, we can regard them as normal attempts to ward off the anxieties of everyday life.
A number of billionaires who made their fortunes through creating “addicting apps” have created a second career warning us to not use them. These self-declared experts inform us that we glance at our phones incessantly because we suffer from FOMO, the fear of missing out. I’ve no doubt there’s some FOMO responsible. But I also believe checking your phone may be primarily a nervous habit, used in place of smoking, chewing gum, gnawing your fingernails, or playing with fidget toys. We rejoice that smoking has far fewer devotees. It’s naive, however, to assume we haven’t replaced smoking with other nervous habits, iPhone glancing among them, which is likely the least harmful.