Recently, a new book has come out about addiction, and it’s creating a lot of buzz. Maia Szalavitz’s book Unbroken Brain is part memoir and part manifesto. Coupled with her personal experiences with drugs and addiction is a passionate argument to change the way we see addiction.

The Argument for a New Perspective

Szalavitz says that one of the primary problems with the way that we perceive addiction in our culture is that we have a lose-lose dichotomy. Either addiction is a degenerative, uncontrollable brain disease, or it’s a sin and crime that needs to be punished. The disease model produces desireable results because it encourages a compassionate treatment approach, However, it’s hard to match up personal accountability with the disease model. Thinking that you or your loved one is victim to a disease for which the cure has a 50/50% chance of working can be disheartening and lead to a feeling of lack of control and helplessness.

Szalavitz argues for a new way to look at addiction. She argues that addiction is most like a learning disorder.

Now, while this is a relatively new perspective and has yet to be fully understood, the argument to see addiction as a learning disorder has some very interesting ramifications that we’d like to explore.

People Who Have Addictions Are Wired Differently

What can be so mystifying about addiction when viewed from the outside, and so isolating about it from inside is that it’s hard to understand the appeal and the compulsion to continue, despite knowing that it’s harmful. It can be easier to understand when looked at from the point of view of a learning disability. We know that addiction affects the part of the mind that fuels motivation and pleasure, as well as decision-making and prioritizing. These areas help the brain function in order to provide what we need for survival. Addiction happens when these motivations and priorities are directed wrongly.

In Addiction, Motivation and Priorities are Directed Differently

Craving and addiction only happens once the brain learns that the drug provides something that a person wants… and even needs. Perhaps it soothes crippling anxiety. Perhaps it provides comfort and a feeling a love and belonging that someone is lacking. In any case, once that harmful solution is found, other things like relationships, a solid job, even personal grooming and health standards, can be bumped from the line of priority. Instead of learning how to find a healthy solution to the problem underlying the addiction, someone will continue to become more and more dependent on a substance to answer their needs.

In this way, it’s important to realize that addiction isn’t simply someone going crazy and leaving their senses. Rather, it’s a different set of motivations and solutions. It doesn’t make sense until we understand the need that the drug answered.

In our next post, we’re going to continue the discussion on addiction as a learning disorder. Specifically, we’re going to take a look at the hope that can be gained from this perspective.