It’s also awesome because this year I got to attend The Amazing Meeting. It’s too much to describe (the Philosophe is doing daily round ups of all the cool stuff). But in summary, between 24-hr access to slot machines, $1 Bloody Marys, and some 65 very clever people talking about very clever stuff, let’s just say my dopamine levels are deliciously high.
About which, some of the talks I’ve so far enjoyed the most have been by Sally Satel and Scott Lilienfeld on the problems with popular misunderstandings of neuroimaging and the abuses of addiction-lingo.
Probably the laziest – and most prevalent – model of “understanding” addiction relies on spotting raised dopamine levels in those pretty pictures of the brain that has everyone pretending to have as much expertise as an actual neuroscientist. Here’s another picture of a brain (this from Lilienfeld’s talk):
If the Daily Mail had their way with this, that would probably be a yes. But what’s even more remarkable is that this isn’t just an image of a fish brain. It’s of dead fish.
So, no, spotting dopamine on pictures of the brain does not actually tell us very much about addiction.
Also, a few key points from Satel’s talk which should be useful if you find yourself in conversation with someone spouting some neurobollocks about, say, carb “addiction”:
- raised dopamine levels do not imply loss of control over your behaviours (speaking of “addictive” substances, it may be useful to make a distinction between something be “irresistible” and someone “not having resisted” that something. Basically the metaphor that drugs/sugar/carbs/Noakes ‘hi-jacked’ the brain is not a useful one);
- just because something causes neurological changes to the brain does not mean that thing is toxic (learning a new language changes the brain);
- the trope of “once an addict always an addict” is neither accurate nor useful, and not all addictive behaviours require medical interventions. Most people are in fact able get over their addictions by themselves, often by teaching themselves strategies like “self-binding”, or actively avoiding triggers, for example by not walking past your drug dealer or staying out of the casino if that’s your poison.
Of course many people have problems with compulsive and/or addictive behaviours that can and do benefit from the attention and intervention of people who understand how such things work. But it was heartening to be reminded that most human beings are actually able to metabolize (Satel’s word) much more than they’re given credit for by the hyperbolic “victim-to-your-brain” speak currently in vogue.
So when in Vegas, go eat some bacon and donuts at midnight, and then go throw some money in a slot machine when you’ve had a bit too much to drink.