Addiction and free will

Free Will

Bethany Brookshire, aka Scicurious, has an awesome article on how we think of addiction:

None of these views are wrong. But none of them are complete, either. Addiction is a disorder of reward, a disorder of learning. It has genetic, epigenetic and environmental influences. It is all of that and more. Addiction is a display of the brain’s astounding ability to change — a feature called plasticity  — and it showcases what we know and don’t yet know about how brains adapt to all that we throw at them.

…Addiction involves pleasure and pain, motivation and impulsivity. It has roots in genetics and in environment. Every addict is different, and there are many, many things that scientists do not yet know. But one thing is certain: The only overall explanation for addiction is that the brain is adapting to its environment. This plasticity takes place on many levels and impacts many behaviors, whether it is learning, reward or emotional processing.  If the question is how we should think of addiction, the answer is from every angle possible.

But this Aeon piece on addiction is still stuck on the mind-body problem:

In an AA meeting, such setbacks are often seen as an ego out of control, a lack of will. Yet research describes a powerful chemical inertia that can begin early in life. In 96.5 per cent of cases, addiction risk is tied to age; using a substance before the age of 21 is highly predictive of dependence because of the brain’s vulnerability during development. And childhood trauma drives substance use in adolescence. A study of 8,400 adults, published in 2006 in the Journal of Adolescent Health, found that enduring one of several adverse childhood experiences led to a two- to three-fold increase in the likelihood of drinking by age 14.

…Her multiple relapses, according to recent science, are no ethical or moral failing – no failure of will. Instead, they are the brain reigniting the neurological and chemical pathways of addiction.

Is will not the result of chemicals, or do we believe in souls again? Here is a recent interview with Daniel Dennett on neuroscience and free will:

Given that we now know — and can even perturb — some of the brain mechanisms of morality, and we see perhaps more clearly than ever that this is biological, what are the implications for blame, credit and free will to us, to everyday people?

First, it’s no news that your mind is your brain, and that every decision you make and every thought you have and every memory you recall is somehow lodged in your brain and involves brain activity. Up until now, we haven’t been able to say much more than that. Now, it’s getting to the point where we can. But it has almost no implications for morality and free will.

…Somebody wrote a book called ‘My Brain Made Me Do It,’ and I thought, ‘What an outrageous title! Unless it’s being ironic.’ Of course my brain made me do it! What would you want, your stomach to make you do it?

If you said, ‘My mind made me do it,’ then people would say, ‘Yes, right.’ In other words, you’re telling me you did this on purpose, you knew what you were doing. Well, if you do something on purpose and you know what you’re doing and you did it for reasons good, bad or indifferent, then your brain made you do it, of course. It doesn’t follow that you were not the author of that deed. Why? Because you are your embodied brain.

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2 thoughts on “Addiction and free will

  1. Yeah, this is one of my pet peeves. It amazes me how frequently I hear neuroscience colleagues say, “Well, that’s more of a psychological issue than a physical brain thing…” Of course, this kind of thinking tends to come up frequently when discussing addiction.

    So when I hear things like “My brain made me do it” my initial reaction is to roll my eyes at the obviousness. But, I’m increasingly curious whether we need to continue making this point more strongly, so that even scientists that ought to no better think through their position a bit more carefully…

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