The Role of Craving in the Cycle of Addictive Behavior

The Role of Craving in the Cycle of Addictive Behavior


I begin by describing a typical episode of pursuing and taking drugs based on my own experience of addiction during my 20s. This vignette demonstrates how thoughts about drugs and feelings of craving grow together in a person’s mind, until they finally give in. Then comes the loss and despair, and the cycle repeats itself. According to psychological theory, the attraction to the cycle of craving and the use of drugs increases over months and years. According to neuroscience, brain events follow a similar cycle, from perceptual triggers to the activation of motivational, cognitive, and behavioral systems, though structural changes in the brain emerge over longer periods. The universality and momentum of the addiction cycle stem largely from the action of dopamine, a neurochemical that narrows attention to immediate rewards and intensifies the desire to attain them. Focused desire–or craving–is also a key element in Buddhist models of suffering. Buddhist views map onto the neuropsychology of addiction surprisingly well: Craving and grasping lead to action, loss, and despair in a cycle that recurs time and time again. As drug use increasingly affects the brain, it becomes very difficult for addicts to look beyond the immediate goal and see the larger picture of their lives. To get out of this trap, addicts have to learn to trust in themselves rather than in drugs or alcohol. My presentation ends by considering the usefulness of making contact with a “higher self” that enables self-forgiveness and compassion, and weakens the intense attraction of immediate goals.

  • Dialogue 27
    11 sessions
  • October 28, 2013
    Dharamsala, Himachal Pradesh, India
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Marc Lewis

Marc Lewis is a developmental neuroscientist and professor of developmental psychology, recently at the University of Toronto (where he taught and conducted research from 1989-2010), and presently at Radboud University in the Netherlands. He is the author or co-author of more than 50 journal publications in psychology and neuroscience. He experimented with a large variety of drugs in his youth, and eventually became addicted to opiates. His addiction cost him several close relationships and led him into a life of crime. He got arrested and convicted for theft, and was kicked out of graduate school as a result. At the age of 30, he quit drugs for good, then re-entered grad school and received his PhD five years later. In 2006, his research led him back to addiction--this time as a neuroscientist studying the brain changes that amplify craving and weaken self-control. His recent book, Memoirs of an Addicted Brain, blends his life story with a user-friendly account of how drugs affect the brain and how addiction seriously alters neural chemistry and structure.