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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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Memoirs of an Addicted Brain may be the most original and illuminating addiction memoir since Thomas De Quincey's seminal Confessions of an Opium Eater. What makes it such a standout from the genre's overflow of self-indulgent mediocrities isn’t merely its supple intelligence and subtle style but the unique perspective of the author. From the age of 15 until his recovery at 30, Marc Lewis spent most of his waking life under the influence of every drug he could get his hands on, developing an extreme addiction that cost him everything but his life. Once clean, he found his vocation as a neuroscientist, focusing on the drug-based brain changes driving cravings and relapse.

Lewis’ twin expertise as a longtime addict and a brain scientist enabled him to produce a memoir mapping, in remarkably lucid and vivid detail, entirely new ground. Weaving together his objective accounts of drugs' effects on the brain with descriptions of his mind's subjective experience, he brings to light how the very shape of intoxication on one substance or another provides mirrors the shape of the specific chemical reactions taking place inside your skull.

These pioneering observations fit effortlessly into the overall narrative, which is as over-the-top suspenseful as David Carr’s classic The Night of the Gun. From alienated adolescent introduced to alcohol and marijuana in a Machiavellian prep school, Lewis makes the leap to college at Berkeley in 1968 at the peak of psychedelia; never one to moderate, he gobbles hallucinogens by the handful and then moves on to shooting heroin, barely escaping death by OD.

His early 20s find him backpacking through Southern Asia, sniffing nitrous oxide in the jungle, buying heroin hot off the factory line and paying nightly visits to opium dens (read excerpt). Back home in Toronto, he marries badly and begins stealing opiates from the science labs and medical centers where he is earning a PhD in psychology. Easily outfoxing the experts he works with, he has years in which to perfect his criminality and deepen his addiction until he is busted and sentenced to recovery. But as his marriage unravels, he relapses, injecting oxycodone and methamphetamine on a daily basis while working at a psychiatric hospital.

At age 30, facing the possibility of a long prison sentence, he finally finds the endless road of recovery and begins to rebuild his life.

For all its braininess and pain, Memoirs of an Addicted Brain is also seriously funny.

With this electrifying debut amidst rave reviews, Lewis is finding himself much in demand, a new (and somewhat unsettling) situation for someone who is after not celebrity but truth. He recently started his own thought-provoking blog,  memoirsofanaddictedbrain.com, which already has a large following, and he has also signed on as a regular blogger at Psychology Today.

He spoke to The Fix from The Netherlands, where he teaches at Radboud University. —Walter Armstrong

The Fix: You titled your book Memoirs of an Addicted Brain—not an “addicted mind”? 

Marc Lewis: I call it brain rather than mind because I wanted to focus on how drugs affect the mechanisms of the brain to establish an addiction. But I also wanted to describe what takes place in the mind, the shape of the subjective experience of being on a particular drug, since each one gives a different experience—and I spent time on all of them. 

But in the end, the mind and the brain are interdependent, and your own personal subjectivity and the objective transformations in your brain are deeply interconnected. The brain gets “caught up” in the experience of the specific drug in a way that mirrors what happens to your mind.