Occasionally, but more frequently recently, people ask me “what the hell are you talking about?” when I make the claim that human beings are born addicted to chemicals and spend the duration of their life seeking them out. I suppose that I should or could be more careful with the language I choose when discussing my opinions about the subject, because it is next to impossible for a person to hear my statement and not automatically assume that I am talking about them. But since I am, maybe my word choice is exactly what is needed.
You are a chemical addict, you were born one because your parents were both addicts, and all of their ancestors were addicts too. In fact, all of your friends are addicts, everyone you have ever loved, cared about, or respected was an addict. Frankly, the strength of your character isn’t enough to keep you on the wagon. Okay, maybe YOUR’s is, but statistically speaking it isn’t. There have only been a small number of human beings who have ever lived that were able to overcome their addiction, all of which suffered the fatal consequences of ridding their bodies of the chemical of choice.
Look at the video below, with the sound off, then take a few minutes to consider what you have just read, what you see in the video, and what I am getting at.
Funny baby eh?
Well that baby is you. Maybe not right now, although it is possible. Everyone is that baby a number of times throughout their life and when we take the time to realize this fact, we gain a level of insight into the essential nature of what it means to be a human being.
“What the hell am I talking about?”
Well, that baby has no experience with ice cream before this video was recorded. It is accustomed to having one of its caregivers feed it. It has learned that when a caregiver presents food to it in this way, by holding it up in front of its face, that the food will find its way into its mouth if it opens it. Its young brain has collected a lot of information, created and tested a few theories, and arrived with a cause and effect pairing that has a high degree of predictive accuracy. This is a remarkable thing to have happen and yet this less than a year old baby has done it.
But it has never had ice cream before this moment. I am certain about this fact not because of the title of the video but because of how the baby reacts to the ice cream. Watch it again and you will notice that the baby does not reach for the ice cream UNTIL after it has had a moment to process what has just occurred. Then notice that it doesn’t seem to have any aversion to holding onto the it in-spite of the fact that ice cream is very cold.
The adults in the video are laughing because it is superficially very funny. It’s as though the baby goes “oh, they’re about to feed me, I’ll just open my mouth and the food will go in.” Adult moves food to mouth and baby takes a lick because this is what its experience has taught it to be the best action to take in this type of situation. It is not reaching for anything, it is letting the adult move the food; its little arms are kind of hanging there, not completely relaxed but not taking any purposeful action. There is a moment, a very short one, and then things change, slowly then dramatically and the adults begin to laugh.
The first thing that happens after the ice cream and the baby connect is a moment of assessment. It isn’t entirely clear what is going on in the baby’s brain here, at least by trying to read its face, but we know from our own experience with eating new things that there is a cascade of events all of which are aimed at determining what role the food will play in our future. There are three potential outcomes, two of which are very important. Should this be eaten again, should this not be eaten again, or does it not matter one way or the other. The first two are critical assessments because the brain is programmed to do the things that increase the chances of survival and never repeat the things that reduce the chances. This assessment is made automatically, unconsciously and very quickly. In this situation the brain registers a “not a survival risk” then “can be eaten again” followed by “MUST EAT NOW.”
You can see the look of absolute novel delight on its face followed by the automatic and impulsive seeking behaviour as it reaches out, grabs the ice cream and pulls it into its face and mouth.
But there is even more to it. Coldness is a sensation that human beings are programmed to notice and avoid unless they have cause to try and lower their body temperature. The video looks like it is being filmed in a mall, which is going to be kept at a comfortable temperature, so the baby is not seeking out something that will cool it off. However, coldness in general and a dramatic contrast in temperature specifically are sensations that the brain CANNOT NOT notice given the very narrow and relatively high temperature that the body must maintain in order to continue functioning effectively. The baby, or the baby’s brain, is absolutely aware of the temperature of the ice cream, likely from the first moment when it touches its mouth, but definitely when it grabs and holds onto it.
Survival is THE most important thing to living beings, everything else is at best secondary. We have temperature receptors in our skin because they improve survival fitness. While they are important to human beings, they were MORE important to whatever species first developed them, and because they helped those beings survive, the instructions to develop them remained and were passed along to whatever species was next in the evolutionary sequence. The survival advantage they afforded was greater than the energy cost of growing and maintaining them.
Cold temperatures destroy tissue, and anything that is close to or below the freezing point of water is particularly dangerous. The contrast between air temperature in a mall and the temperature of ice-cream is impossible to perceive as anything other than great and given the cause and effect understanding that the baby has already generated, its brain is attributing the cold contrast to whatever it touched its mouth and then to whatever it just grabbed.
The baby does not, however, withdraw from the ice cream nor does it let go of it. It assesses the taste and then reaches for, grabs onto and pulls close to its mouth the very thing that is cold. This is something that a living being will do under two circumstances. The first is that it does so consciously, the second is that it does so because there is a survival advantage in doing so. The first one is a non factor here because the child does not have the level of brain development that is needed for consciousness to emerge. This leaves the second one, there is a survival benefit to enduring the coldness.
So the brain of the baby is aware that there is something about ice cream that will improve its chances of remaining alive and that this improvement is GREATER than the threat represented by the coldness. Being a brain and being in control of the body, it reaches out to the survival substance, grabs onto it, takes control, and begins to eat it. It is programmed to do this whenever it can, so once the assessment has been made that ice cream will improve survival the outcome is automatic.
Ice cream is not good for us though. If we eat too much of it, it will begin to harm us and it is entirely possible that someone could eat themselves through ill health and arrive at death. BUT, and this is very important when considering what evolutionary fitness means in a practical sense and what survival actually means. Survival is everything other than death. Given this binary definition, eating so much ice cream so as to cause illness is achieving the goal of surviving. Also consider the time frame we are dealing with. It takes WAY longer to eat ourselves to death by ice cream than it would take to starve ourselves to death by simply not eating.
Eating crappy food does not present the existential risk that NOT eating food presents. In fact, a case can be made that when we do not have access to a lot of food, eating things that are high in calories is actually a very pragmatic approach. When the choice is between dying or eating crappy food, the brain does not register that there is a choice to be made and will simply cause the body to do whatever it has to do in order to eat.
Recall that I mentioned about temperature receptors that we have in our skin being the result of a change to the genetic code of one of our early ancestors? EVERY gene we have is the result of a change in the genetic code of our ancestors but not every change that occurred was helpful. A new trait was only helpful if it increased the likelihood that the creature would survive and reproduce within the environment that the creature lived in. Therefore our ancestors lived in an environment that favoured beings that ate ice cream while enduring coldness MORE than ones that would avoid coldness even if that meant they did not eat ice cream.
Given that the earliest that ice cream could have been invented is 3000 BCE, which is not long enough in the past to impact evolution in any meaningful way, we have to assume that the ice cream is a place holder for something else. In this case, it is holding the place of high energy food – sugar and fat. Am I suggesting that the human brain is programmed to seek out and consume sugar and fat containing foods, even when there is some level of physical discomfort associated with this consumption? Yes, that is exactly what I am suggesting. I’ll go one further and say that human beings have the genes to motivate us to eat high calorie foods because there was a time in our evolutionary past when there wasn’t an abundance of food leading individuals who ate high calorie foods to have a survival advantage over those who ate lower calorie foods.
When was this time? Not every long ago. Food insecurity was a fact of life for the entire planet less than 150 years ago. The discovery / invention of farming about 11000 years ago improved the food scarcity situation for human considerably, but there were still seasonal cycles of abundance and scarcity, and the occasional famine when weather changes, disease, or war interrupted the food supply causing the death of the young, the old, and the weak.
We always need to keep in mind that the genes coded on our DNA are the ones that favoured our ancestors at the time they lived and are not the ones that necessarily serve our survival needs today. They are amazing, but some of them are not what we would select for modern life. Oh well, that isn’t how things work.
What does any of this have to do with YOU being an addict?
Take another look at the first 5 seconds of the video again and notice the look on the baby’s face right before it tries to exert control over its environment by grabbing onto the ice cream, pulling it towards its mouth and getting down to eating it.
That look is very important and arguably the most revealing thing in the video; and possibly the most revealing thing in any video that is hosted on YouTube. Something very important has just happened inside the brain of the baby that causes a number of physiological changes that lead to psychological changes and then to physical actions. The first is a profound level of delight that nearly every human being who sees the video feels to some extent. The second is a focusing of attention onto the ice cream that is so tight that it clears EVERYTHING else out. The next thing is a targeting / aiming followed by the seeking and consumption behaviour that has the baby grab the ice cream and begin to eat it. This desire for more is so powerful that the baby effectively ignores the sensation of coldness that represents a threat to survival. You can see some slightly grimaced looks each time its gums hit the ice cream but whatever the cause of them does not rise-up to the level of changing course. The baby, upon tasting the ice cream, gets after possessing and eating the ice cream in a near maniacal and single-minded way. To the baby there is nothing else BUT the ice cream.
The baby is an addict and the video captures a moment when it got a fix. On the surface it appears that they are addicted to ice cream but this is only partially correct. It isn’t the ice cream, nor is it anything that is contained within the ice cream, at least not directly. The baby, and you and me, are addicted to what the brain does in reaction to the ice cream. And the brain doesn’t just react to ice cream in this way, it reacts to many things in the same way. The younger the person is and the lower their experience with the world, the smaller is the list of things that will trigger this reaction.
What we are seeing on the video is the result of the baby’s brain releasing dopamine into the synaptic cleft between the neurons that make-up the reward centre of its brain. This causes a sensation / level of activity that the brain is coded to seek out. Once it learns how to cause the release, it will begin to engineer life in such a way as to ensure the consumption of or participation in the things that will trigger the release. This process is what is understood to be the mechanism of psychological reward, which functions to reinforce particular actions and to incentivize the repeating of these actions.
For babies, the only actions that will trigger a dopamine release are those actions that at one point improved evolutionary fitness. This means high calorie food, social connection, contact with caregivers, any successful pattern match between immediate sensory data and something contained in long term memory, and the creation of a stimulus : response / cause : effect pairing EVEN ones that are not accurate. This last one can be understood to be learning, even when what is learned is not accurate.
The key to the entire thing is that living beings need to take action in order to survive and the dopamine reward system is what emerged to motivate a being to spend energy taking an action within an environment that was energy scarce. In a world that is both “act or die” and “act and die,” this system is fantastic at causing individuals to both take actions and to take very specific ones.
Take a second to think about some of the stories that you have heard about someone who got addicted to crack cocaine. Crack is considered to be more addictive than powder cocaine although all crack users say they would rather use powder than smoke crack. The key difference between them is the method of delivery – crack is burned and the smoke is inhaled while the powder is snorted. The smoke finds its way into the blood stream faster than the powder which means it hits the brain faster. It is the same underlying mechanism of action, that is to delay the re-uptake of dopamine thus prolonging the effect of dopamine. It isn’t the cocaine itself that causes the effect, it is the impact that the cocaine has on the dopamine that cause the physiological and psychological changes. Crack is more addictive because you feel the effects faster, but for less time.
A common horror story about crack and cocaine addiction is that of a person who replaces every action in their life with drug seeking and consumption behaviour. While this might make sense for a baby or someone who knows nothing about life, it makes very little sense for someone who has the life experience and skills enough to be able to afford to buy drugs given that if they know enough about the world to earn money they probably also know that cocaine is a highly addictive drug. But when we remember that the dopamine reward system exists to motivate beings to take action, the only thing that is actually stopping someone from becoming a cocaine addict is their brains lack of knowledge that cocaine powerfully activates their reward system. That is all. It doesn’t really matter what you know consciously, once the nervous system has the experience of pairing an action with the activation of the reward system, the lesson is learned and the pairing will last forever. It is such a powerful system that it will have a baby grab onto freezing cold ice cream and repeatedly eat bites of it, and when it is dialed up, it is powerful enough to motivate someone to do nothing BUT take the actions that most quickly and intensely trigger it to be activated.
Okay, you are not addicted to cocaine although you have all of the requirements for a life destroying addiction to it. You have a dopamine reward system that will motivate you to take the actions that cause it to become active. This system shows a down regulation or tolerance in response to repeated activation in both a perceptual sense and in a real synaptic level sense – repeated exposure to the same stimuli will, over time, result in a diminished release of dopamine while any increase in activation at the neural junction will, over time, result in a decrease in the number of receptor sites which means a larger amount of dopamine will be required to trigger the same level of activation. These are basically the only requirements that are needed in order for someone to develop an addiction for something; so while we are not born addicted to anything, we are very close to having one and just need to uncover the ways to get the brain to release the chemicals. Once our brain learns what actions cause the release, this is sufficient enough to manifest seeking behaviour which has the goal of triggering a release. After a few of them, the magnitude of the response begins to drop, resulting in an increase of the required behaviour. From this point on, the down regulation of dopamine receptors results in a low level of activation which makes the baseline level of dopamine release to be experienced as less rewarding. Below a certain level, this will result in withdrawal-like symptoms, the primary one being a overwhelming craving for the activities that trigger release. If an individual continues to display the behaviour, their level of tolerance continues to grow resulting in a linear increase in the severity of withdrawal symptoms. However, if the individual stops the behaviour and puts an end to the activation, there will be a return to baseline through the up-regulation in the number of receptor sites allowing the brain to return to its pre-exposure level of activity. How long this takes will be determined by exposure length, duration and quantity, level of down regulation, overall health, diet, amount of rest, and a persons physiological ability to facilitate organic tissue growth.
The brain is coded to release reward chemicals in response to things that increase the chances of remaining alive and that improve evolutionary fitness, with the objective of motivating the individual to repeat these actions.
This system is powerful, but it not a direct system in most cases. While there are a number of things that will trigger its activation directly – such as the consumption of fatty high sugar foods, social connection, matching a pattern between sensory data and long term memory – most of the activation is indirect, either through the ingestion of exogenous molecules or the interpretation / perception of sensory data.
Living beings know innately or learn very early in life that there is a stimulus response relationship or cause and effect connection between things in the external world. This piece of wisdom is the key stone in the effectiveness of the dopamine based reward system because it allows the brain to learn that action A caused the release of rewards. Once this is learned, the brain will begin to repeat action A in order to get more reward.
When we look at the baby in the video, we are able to notice three critical yet completely distinct moments and one that is invisible but clearly present – the action, the release of the reward chemicals, the invisible moment of learning (the pairing of the ice cream to the reward), and the reward seeking behaviour which is the repeating of the action.
The baby is now aware that ice cream causes the release of reward chemicals so it will be motivated to eat ice cream again in the future and it is one very big step closer to developing an addiction to fatty high sugar substances.
If no action is taken, no learning will occur. If an action is taken but no reward chemicals are released, the brain will learn that there is no incentive in repeating the action.
Before wrapping this up, please take another look at the video and then come back to read to the end. Human beings are in a unique place in history. We are running the code that allowed all of our ancestors to survive long enough to reproduce and to have a survival advantage over other individuals who did not have the code. But our larger brain has given us the ability to communicate very effectively with other individuals along with the capacity for creativity. Working together in groups and using these two skills, we have developed the ability to consistently change the external environment in a way that eliminates the majority of the things that the evolved code helped us to survive in spite of. This has rendered the reward system mostly irreverent and potentially problematic in that it motivates us to seek out things that are no longer rare and are only of marginal survival advantage if at all helpful.
We are born addicted to dopamine, given that we will seek out things that trigger its release and given our ability to develop tolerance to this chemical. We are not born addicted to cocaine, other drugs, or to specific fatty high sugar foods. However, it is very simple for the brain to learn the association between actions and rewards, and to then develop an addiction to those actions. The baby at the end of the video is a lot closer to becoming a compulsive eater of fatty high sugar food than it was at the beginning of the video. This would not be the case if it had never had the experience of eating the ice cream.
Be very careful when taking any new action, particularly ones that have you consume external molecules. Pay very close attention to how you feel in the moments immediately surrounding you taking any new action when you notice that you begin to feel fantastic, good, heightened in a positive direction, or any state that is higher than your baseline. Be very mindful when choosing to repeat that action. If the action is NOT necessary or if it pointless, useless, or unhelpful, consider NEVER repeating it again. Your brain has already learned that the action causes the release of reward chemicals so you are only a few repetitions away from creating a compulsive or habitual pattern of behaviour that will, over time, start to make-up a larger portion of the actions that you take.
We are born addicted, over time we learn what it is that we are addicted to.