The Buddhist ‘wheel of life’ talks about six realms, each representing a distinctive feature of human existence. One among them is the ghost realm, characterised by hungry spirits gripped by unfulfilled desires. They are described as having large empty bellies, but scrawny necks, skinny limbs and small mouths. Thus, they are never able to satiate their starvation. This is how neurologist Dr Gabor Mate views addiction in his book In the Realm of Hungry Ghosts: Close Encounter with Addiction.
When we think of addiction, it is usually the drug addicts, alcoholics or chain-smokers that come to mind. Then, there are pathological gamblers and sex offenders. But addiction need not always be so obvious. It can also manifest itself subtly. For instance, compulsive usage of mobile phones, tendency to overeat and uncontrollable urge to shop are also forms of addiction. Even a workaholic is an addict.
Dr Mate writes: “Addiction can express itself in many ways, through many different habits. It’s safe to say that any pursuit which induces a feeling of increased motivation and pleasure, activates the brain the same way as addiction.” For example, if we enjoy eating red velvet cake, the brain stores this pleasurable experience in our memory. It further associates red velvet cake with pleasure, making us binge on it.
Neuroscientist Kate Fehlhaber, explains this behaviour in her article The Reward Pathway Reinforces Behaviour. The reward pathway originates in the centre of the brain, where special neurons release neurotransmitter dopamine (the pleasure chemical). The dopamine enables us to identify rewards and work towards them. In order to ensure we repeat this behaviour, the reward-pathway is connected to other areas in the brain that control memory and behaviour.