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Addiction in Science Fiction

May 20, 2012

Jonathan asks for a three-question definition of addiction. Most of my books show addictions of one sort or another; the “stonesickness” in A Door into Ocean, the gambling addiction in The Highest Frontier. Addiction is the core of Brain Plague, where the the most addictive thing in the universe is intelligent microbes. “Micros” live in the brain and communicate by colors. For micros, the human brain looks a lot like the brainbow slice above. The brainbow is a genetically engineered mouse that makes distinct fluorescent proteins in different brain neurons, coloring them hundreds of different colors. Why would we do this, Dr. Frankenstein?  Of course–to study medical brain disorders, such as addiction.

Few subjects are the source of greater hypocrisy in our society than addiction. Years ago, we used to distinguish addiction from habituation, which was supposedly non-medical and therefore more OK than addiction. But if you look at this old document I dredged up with its tortuous argument that tobacco smoking is not addictive, you can see that basically society tries to deny that legal socially acceptable substances or practices are addictive. This notion lies behind much of the snarky attitude of Brain Plague. Today the old argument has largely been rejected. Furthermore, we realize that even behaviors not involving pharmaceuticals–such as eating disorders–can interact with the same central brain system or reward pathway.

To get an idea of how drugs interact with the reward pathway, I recommend the interactive demo Mouse Party. While I wish it included nicotine and other legal drugs, the ones it does include are pretty good. Basically, one way or another most addictive drugs or behaviors overload the dopamine pathway that makes pleasure. (Many other neurotransmitters like serotonin are also involved, but dopamine seems to be the most central.) The speed of response, intensity, and duration all contribute to the addiction tendency. Nicotine and cocaine act particularly fast. MDMA (ecstasy) has particularly long-lasting effect.

But the key thing that happens with any stimulus–whether light on your retina, sound on your ear’s hair cells, or something releasing dopamine–is adaptation. Adaptation means that during a stimulus, the body adjusts to lower responsiveness (or increase the threshold for response). So the longer, and the more intense, the stimulus, the sooner you adapt–and feel worse upon removal of the stimulus. That’s why cocaine and nicotine users scrabble around looking for more, as the effect wears off. Prolonged users of a substance may eventually experience permanent adaptation, so they can never recover the ability to “feel good” — with or without the substance. A similar thing happens with dieters–having experienced a higher fat level, one feels permanently starved.

How do you know if you’re “addicted” to something? That’s not easy because the medical profession, and society at large, have no clear definition. In Brain Plague, the characters don’t agree either; and the definition they start with evolves throughout the book. Nevertheless, as a practical matter, I suggest the following three questions:

  • Can I stop?
  • When I stop, am I a functional person?
  • If I don’t stop, am I a functional person?
  1. heteromeles permalink
    May 21, 2012 2:03 am

    I think those are great questions. The only problem is that I suspect a majority of the things we do within modern society fall within those categories, especially when you think of what it means to be less of a person, functionally.

    • May 21, 2012 10:09 am

      Precisely. The problem is, how do you come up with a definition of addiction that doesn’t apply to breathing oxygen? Oxygen has all kinds of bad effects–oxidation is responsible for much of what we call aging.

      • paws4thot permalink
        May 21, 2012 3:08 pm

        A similar argument applies to getting di-Hydrogen Oxide in the wrong places in the body.

  2. Barkeron permalink
    May 21, 2012 8:48 am

    A prime example of the unscientific influences science has to suffer from political and corporate machination. I don’t think I surprise anyone reading this by pointing out how lucrative the “War On Drugs(TM)” is for certain elements of the establishment.

    The silver lining is that we live in a kind of golden age of the neurosciences and the international community might unlock the secrets of addiction in the near future. It’s unlikely their reach extends to every corner of the world.

    • Barkeron permalink
      May 21, 2012 9:17 am

      On the other hand they may be in for some trouble. 😛

      • May 21, 2012 10:19 am

        “New, unknown and poorly understand psychoactive chemicals are appearing faster than they can be regulated.”

        Yes, that’s where it’s at. There are infinite possible molecules out there.

        In Brain Plague, they eventually (spoiler alert) get the addictive micros to “Just say no.” (Irony within irony) But that won’t work with chlorinated amphetamines. Basically you’re on your own to decide: Am I the kind of human being I want to be?

  3. JamesPadraicR permalink
    May 21, 2012 10:11 am

    I imagine few addicts would honestly answer the first question (“I can quit any time I want!”), until they hit rock bottom, which sort of answers the other questions. Of course, there are addictions that don’t hit that stage–I was going to say smoking’s an example, though I suppose being diagnosed with lung cancer might count as hitting bottom. Maybe teen texting fits?

    • JamesPadraicR permalink
      May 22, 2012 6:09 pm

      Third thoughts. I didn’t mean discount your questions, I’m sure they would be helpful for some forms of addiction. My mind just went to worst-cases.

  4. JonathanC permalink
    May 21, 2012 11:51 am

    Thanks Joan! There seems to be a denial phase involved in addiction that creates a need for some objective test questions to apply to any pattern of activity. I may be addicted to 10 behaviors or substances and not even know it! But an objective test should reveal it and then I can decide to change it or not. I mean, who really wants to give up chocolate, right?
    In this set of questions a ‘very strong yes’ in one or a ‘maybe/sort of’ in all three get you an addiction candidate, starting with any repeating activity, eg. running, chocolate eating, sitting in favorite chair…

    1- Does doing it (at the highest dose/level I tend to do it) create any physical, financial, or social harm to me?

    2- Do I do this more when I am anxious or stressed?

    3- Do I crave this or think about it much when I am not doing it?

  5. JonathanC permalink
    May 22, 2012 3:17 pm

    Defining addiction seems almost as hard as defining consciousness. But there may be a clue in that similarity. Using the word addiction presupposes another state of mind, where our thinking is fully free of the push and pull of chemicals and urges. Ultimately every action or substance in the greater environment translates into brain chemistry. But we can not just look into the brain to spot addiction, just as we do not find conciousness ‘located’ in the brain. That rush of dopamine on the scan may be from falling in love with your soul mate or a line of cocaine for the addict.

    Many people use a ‘I know it when I see it.’ kind of practical approach. This is pretty workable. But in a society heading down a path of rapidly increasing technology, especially biotechnology, we could all be irretrievably far down a spiral of addiction before we see it.

    Perhaps an attempt at definition for addiction could be something like, ‘ Repeating departures from lucid thinking or rational behaviour which result from a substance in the environment. Casual attempts to stop contacting the substance after becoming aware of the causal relationship fail. ‘

    Distortions of thinking come from many sources, addiction being one that is obvious and should reveal itself from some kind of simple inquiry. I hope we can get the logic laid out and design an app!

  6. SFreader permalink
    May 25, 2012 7:53 pm

    The way addiction and OCD are described in some novels, it seems as though addiction is merely the flip (external influences vs. Internal innate predisposition) side of the same coin.

    • May 25, 2012 8:45 pm

      From seeing real OCD, I think there is a connection. OCD may be addiction to neural impulses generated from within. I think the neurochemistry remains poorly understood.

  7. Jonathan Cole permalink
    May 31, 2012 7:14 pm

    Here is a question set from a trained person:
    “Are you a Facebook addict? Take the Bergen Facebook Addiction Scale test, developed in Norway, and find out.

    Do you (1) Very rarely, (2) Rarely, (3) Sometimes, (4) Often, or (5) Very often:
    Spend a lot of time thinking about Facebook or plan use of Facebook.
    Feel an urge to use Facebook more and more.
    Use Facebook to forget about personal problems.
    Try to cut down on the use of Facebook without success.
    Become restless or troubled if you are prohibited from using Facebook.
    Use Facebook so much that it has had a negative impact on your job/studies.

    After adding these up, your full score correlates with your addiction level. Did you score “often” or “very often” on at least four of the six items? You’re a Facebook addict.*”

    Looking into the OCD definitions it talks a lot about the person being distressed about/by the condition, as a sign that they have it. “…recurrent and persistent thoughts, impulses, or images that are experienced as intrusive and that cause marked anxiety or distress.”

    So if we are not distressed by our addiction/compulsion either when we do it, or when we can’t do it, then we are not addicted?

    I imagine that we can have no emotional effect from the addiction and still be addicted.


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