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The anatomy of addiction

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.

“Substances such as alcohol or drugs override the existing brain chemistry and subject the victim to substance dependency.”


This pathway plays an integral role in understanding addiction. According to the American Society of Addiction Medicine, addiction is a “chronic disease in the brain-reward pathway. It is characterised by a strong craving for something external to fulfil an insatiable yearning. This eventually leads to biological and psychological problems.”

While many kinds of addictions can be kept under control, substance dependency is uncontrollable, calling for immediate attention. Dr Nisha Manikantan, Director, Art of Living De-addiction Centre, explains, “Substances such as alcohol or drugs override the existing brain chemistry and subject the victim to substance dependency.” Despite their harmful side-effects, these substances are sought after because they increase the amount of dopamine in the brain.

For Henry Rogers, a musician, snorting cocaine began as a casual habit. He had gone through a troubled childhood. And now in his adulthood, cocaine helped him escape from the memories of his past. Initially, he loved the ecstatic feeling the drug gave him. But the habit eventually landed him in the hospital. Even though cocaine almost killed him, Henry’s sunken eyes and shivering hands still longed for the ephemeral salvation. He was pale and dishevelled, desperate and depressed. The drug had enslaved him.

This subjugation is inevitable. Fehlhaber explains in her article, “To offset a sudden deluge of dopamine from external sources, the naturally occurring receptors in the brain become fewer in number.” Eventually, the brain’s ability to produce dopamine diminishes. It results in irritability, depression and exhaustion. A vicious cycle sets in, where one starts welcoming higher doses of external substances to make up for the lack, she observes.

While addiction has been primarily viewed as a neurological problem, several medical professionals increasingly address it as a spiritual problem. 


Besides robbing the brain of its natural ability to produce dopamine, substances can hardwire the brain to keep one dependent on them. A study by the Brookhaven National Laboratory of The United States Department of Energy reveals that the brain scans of cocaine addicts have lower densities of white and grey matter. This deficiency causes addicts to lose their ability to learn, process new information, make new choices and adapt to new situations. They are also unable to regulate emotions or make rational decisions. These changes can last long. Sometimes, they are irreversible, the study shows.

While addiction has been primarily viewed as a neurological problem, several medical professionals increasingly address it as a spiritual problem. Dr Mate writes, “The object, form and severity of addictions are shaped by many influences–social, political and economic status, personal and family history, physiological and genetic predispositions–but at the core of all addictions there lies a spiritual void.”

Interestingly, the ancient discipline of yoga addresses this void within us. Patanjali’s Yoga Sutra charts out ways to self-generate such states of happiness without the help of substances. A cognitive brain research conducted by John F Kennedy Institute and a Danish epilepsy hospital suggests there is about 65 percent increase in dopamine flow in the brain during yoga nidra–a state of consciousness between waking and sleeping.

Yoga can certainly be effective in redeeming a person from addiction. It is no wonder that several de-addiction and rehabilitation centres have started incorporating yogic practices such as kriya, pranayama and asana as part of their treatment. Dr Nisha believes these practices not only keep an addict off drugs, but also empower him to take control of his life.

As for Henry, he is battling his addiction in a rehab. It is an uphill struggle, but Henry remains strong. Under able guidance, he is rediscovering his purpose. He intends to defeat the addict in him and begin his life anew. Henry is living proof that an addict need not be helplessly trapped in the ghost realm forever. With adequate guidance and perseverance, an addict can break free from the shackles of addiction.

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