Supernormal: Why Addictions are More Than Drugs
By Paul Shen
Addiction is a larger problem than most people know. It’s not that Centers for Disease Control statistics on what constitutes addiction is inadequate, it’s that there are more ways to get addicted than we realize. It’s not hard to see how a drug like nicotine can hijack your brain, but there are much more subtle addictions that look like normal behavior taken to an extreme. These extreme behaviors hijack the same systems that illegal drugs mess with.
Every addiction starts out as a slippery slope. You might not get addicted the first time you smoke (there’s only a 35% addiction rate, which is actually very high), you think you are safe. You keep doing it and soon you’re hooked. People have tended to see addiction as a moral issue, which in a sense is a good way to see it. Abdicating self-control by drinking yourself into a stupor seems like a pretty bad choice, and if you kill someone while driving drunk you are still going to do jail time. But once something has become an addiction it becomes a mental disease. Punishment will not cure it, but treatment might.
All addictions hijack our brain’s learning system. Whenever we do something good for us, especially if it is instinctual, like eating or reproducing, a part of our brain called the Nucleus Accumbens releases a chemical called Dopamine to make us feel good. If you never eaten chocolate, for example, you would not crave it until you start eating it and your brain realizes that it tastes good. For most people that craving will be mild at first. If you start to binge on chocolate, another part of your brain called the Ventro-Tegmental Area detects the surge and gets the NA releasing more dopamine. That makes you feel even better, but there’s a catch. If the amount of chocolate you are taking in daily goes up to a high level, then eating that amount becomes normal. The VTA is not looking for normal; it’s looking for better than normal, so it starts to shut down receptors for dopamine, which dulls your response to chocolate. Now you have to eat more to get the same feeling. But if you eat more, you lose more receptors.
This never-ending treadmill is called drug tolerance, and it is why people die of overdoses. Eventually an addict loses so many dopamine receptors that no amount of their drug feels good, but they continue to crave it. This happens quickly with drugs like heroin or meth. It can take decades with normal stimuli like chocolate. This is where the word “supernormal” comes from. 100,000 years ago, humans had to work very hard to get their food. The dopamine system evolved to motivate them to do that work.
Life is a lot easier for us today. Our brains work the same way, but now we have a whole lot more energy in the form of sugary and fat-filled foods than ever before, and we hardly have to move a muscle to get it. One 16 oz. bottle of soda has more sugar in it than or cave-people ancestors saw in a couple weeks. The sugar is a supernormal stimulation. It activates a larger dopamine release than what our brains can handle. It is very easy for sugar consumption to spiral out of control. You can become addicted to sugar the same way a coke addict becomes addicted to cocaine.
Not everyone who drinks soda gets addicted to it, just like not everyone who smokes gets addicted to nicotine. We are not all exactly the same. Some of our brains are more sensitive to dopamine, and thus are more likely to get addicted. But “less likely” and “immune” is not the same thing. Frequent exposure is more likely to lead to addiction, regardless of how sensitive you are to dopamine. This is why the wealthiest countries have the biggest obesity problems – too many calories too easily acquired are a supernormal stimulation. When you see an obese person, you are looking at a food addict. Fat shaming often makes it worse because the quickest way to overcome a guilt trip is to eat more “comfort foods.” And it doesn’t end here.
Psychologists have noted how easily people get addicted to gambling. Look at a slot machine and you see lights, bright colors bells and sirens that over stimulate the VTA and get dopamine into the NA. Once you have won your first game, your brain responds in exactly the same way it would respond to sugar, sex or drugs. All those bells and whistles act as a supernormal stimulation, way brighter, flashy and noisy than anything our Ice Age ancestors ran into. Gambling, video games, and pornography are common supernormal stimulators.
No doubt the more doctors research this, the more behaviors they will find that can hijack our learning mechanisms. The important point is that ordinary things can lead people into a serious problem. Keep your eyes open. If you find yourself grabbing for things even as you tell yourself you shouldn’t, you are hooked.
Reproduction is natural and instinctive, of course, just like eating sugar and fat. Everyone feels that urge. Thumb through some old National Geographic magazines and you see a whole lot of naked or half-naked “natives” of places where the Industrial Revolution has yet to happen. You might think that they would be procreating every minute of every day, but these “naked savages” generally have far fewer babies than their more advanced neighbors, and without the benefit of modern birth control. Why? Chaucer has an answer for that one: “Forbid us something, and that thing we desire.” Once we started having social norms that taught us to hide our bodies, we started to get addicted to sex. Naked savages craved sex at the what must be normal rates for humans, but between hiding our bodies under clothes, which makes the much rarer sights much more stimulating, and modern communications technology, where a business can find the absolutely most attractive people, use stage makeup and Photoshop to make them look even better than reality, then plaster pictures and videos of their anatomy all over the Internet, and you have a supernormal stimulation.
What else? Think about wealth. People who have more money than they need continue to seek more and more, often becoming utterly insatiable. Not every rich person is an addict, but a great many of them treat wealth exactly the same way a drug addict does, willing to do nearly anything to get their next fix. Think about power and attention. Politicians, movie stars, models – all people who seek the limelight, the attention of crowds and cameras becoming their fix. How about bullies? How big a dopamine rush do they get when they beat up a kid and steal their lunch money, or when they become managers and shout at and threaten their employees? How about talk radio hosts and political junkies who get a thrill every time they scream in outrage. They never seem to stop, always looking for some new thing to be indignant about. Our modern world has a how lot of supernormal stimuli, and there are a lot of slippery slopes to look out for.