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Why Our Brains Are Prone to Addiction -- A Neuroscientist Explains

Marc Lewis spent his youth experimenting with every drug he could find. Once clean, he became a neuroscientist experimenting with addicted brains.

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I very well may have gone on to have problems with drugs, but I doubt whether I would have developed an extreme addiction if I had not had that depression at such an impressionable age.

As a neuroscientist, I now recognize that a long, deep depression can have a very negative impact on the developing teenage brain. Also, that age is a pivot point in life, when a child is becoming an adult, forming his or her own identity and a strategy for dealing with the world. And what I was learning was that I did not know how to deal with the world. I was alienated and isolated. 

After you graduated, you went to college at Berkeley just as the Bay Area was becoming the world capital of the countercultural revolution. Drugs were a routine part of everyday life. You moved quickly into hallucinogens and then into heroin. In fact, you OD’d on heroin when you were 20 and almost died. After that, some people would swear off drugs for good, but not you. Why?

I was so young that I actually felt more shame than fear. I couldn’t believe that I had been so stupid as to almost kill myself for the sake of getting high. But I did take one precaution after that—I stopped using needles. Shooting up was on my “forbidden” list. Of course, over time my forbidden list kept getting winnowed down, and a few years later, when I was traveling in Asia, I was shooting heroin and methamphetamine again. And in the last year or so of my addiction, I was shooting almost everything. 

Some people would say that you were trying to kill yourself.

I was certainly taking serious risks that I often did not have control over, but I don’t think I was trying to kill myself at all. At the end, I was in a state of disassociation, I was impulsive, and I wanted immediate gratification. I was not able to realistically weigh the benefits against the costs for my present or my future. This is the way children think at about age four or five. It is also the way people in end-stage addiction think.

Many researchers believe that some people are “born” addicts, due to a combination of genetics, early environment, etc. Yet you make little mention of genes or heredity in your book. Why?

One reason is that genetics is not my expertise. But I also have doubts about what it can really tell us about addiction that is useful. It seems clear to me that there is no such thing as a single addiction gene. Addiction is far too complex a behavior to be reduced to the expression of one gene, or even a group of genes, that science might someday be able to turn off. Addiction is not a physical disease like cancer in which a fairly clear line can often be drawn between genetic mutations and disease development.

It’s true, however, that certain kinds of addiction run in families. But there, I think, it has more to do with the underlying causes of—or orientations to—addiction, such as impulsivity. And we do absorb through early experience the fuckups of our parents, and if alcoholism, say, is a major source of dysfunction in your family, you’re going to be deeply influenced by it one way or another.

On the subject of early development, do you look at your dependence on drugs as an effort, however inadequate, to solve certain psychological problems?

Taking drugs, particularly opiates, was for me about taking in something warm and safe that I had control over and that no one could take away from me. In that respect, I was dealing with certain early issues involving my relationship to my parents. My father was a busy doctor who was often uncommunicative and absent, and my mother was impulsive, kind of wacky. I was drawn to opiates because they can make the world seem like a secure place.