Saturday, December 9, 2017

The Addiction Gene

“If a problem has no solution, it may not be a problem, but a fact, not to be solved, but to be coped with over time.”
Shimon Peres. 1923-2016.

“Each year the US population spends more money on diets than the amount needed to feed all the hungry people in the rest of the world.”
Yuval Noah Harari. Sapiens: A Brief History of Humankind.

“But if my thought-dreams could be seen
They'd probably put my head in a guillotine”
Bob Dylan. It’s alright, Ma (I’m only bleeding). Bringing it all back home.

Here, I will argue that many of our personal and societal ills, while disparate in appearance, are in fact rooted in a single tendency, that of human beings to obsess over a topic, any topic. This tendency is at least partly genetic in nature and has been shown definitively to transcend national, racial, and cultural boundaries. In fact, even animals can suffer from addictions in a similar fashion so the genes have been with us for millions of years. I will use the terms “obsession” and “addiction” interchangeably. Addictions are nothing but obsessions that are frowned upon by society for one reason or another. Instead of penalizing our negative addictions ex post facto, we need to reinforce the positive ones. Far too much money and effort is spent on fighting destructive addictions late in their life cycles, long after they’ve taken over our lives. Instead, we need to admit that we all have such tendencies and to harness and direct them in positive, socially acceptable, directions. Obsessions, after all, take an inordinate amount time and effort. The more time we spend obsessing over positive activities, the less time and brain cycles we have to dedicate to negative ones.

If you think I’m overstating the case, consider the fact that so many of us have become “digitally addicted” in such a short span of time, seemingly surgically attached to our smartphones and laptops - items that didn’t even exist a decade or two ago. Human civilization has, by necessity, created addicts of all of us - and we are complicit in the crime. It doesn’t matter whether that addiction is destructive in nature or constructive. As a species, we seem to like to obsess over something or other. Sooner or later, we all find things to obsess over. You may be addicted to alcohol or opioids, you may pick food as your drug of choice or cigarettes, you may obsess over videogames or you may choose to cut yourself. There is no shortage of vices to choose from, it seems, nor any end to our depravity as a species when it comes to addictive tendencies: there is gambling, there’s pedophilia, there’s drug addiction, you name it. The common characteristic of all these vices is that we spend hours, days, months, years thinking about them, obsessing over them. Pedophiles don’t just wake up one day and decide, out of the blue, to do what it is that they do. They think about and visualize and fantasize about what they’re going to do long before they ever act on the impulse.

And then there are the obsessions that are deemed acceptable by society. There are those who are addicted to exercise, to music, to photography, to reading, to work. I’m not talking about an hour a day spent exercising or a few minutes spent listening to the radio. An audiophile spends just as many hours thinking about and listening to music as an alcoholic does thinking about his next drink. An elite athlete has no choice but to obsess over the sport of her choosing, spending many hours a day exercising.

I speak, by the way, from firsthand experience. I’ve blogged often about my own personal struggles with Obsessive Compulsive Disorder although thankfully, in my case, one that is mild and mostly positive in nature. I may obsess over the music of Bob Dylan or the movies of Woody Allen or the books of Richard Dawkins. I might obsessively follow their careers, spend hours listening to their albums (or watching their movies or reading their books), I may even admit to reading every Wikipedia article about them. Obsessions one and all, to be sure, but mostly harmless ones. I have destructive obsessions as well, like everyone else, but I find the more time I spend on the positive ones, the less time I have to dedicate to the negative ones. After all, there are only so many hours in a given day.

Here’s another example: I used to be a long distance runner for many years. Anyone who has ever run a marathon will tell you that running becomes an obsession after a while. Our brains just crave the endorphins and we become addicted to the exercise. More recently, due to injuries, I switched to biking. It took only a few months for me to start obsessing about biking - first unconsciously and later consciously. These days, I spend an average of roughly three hours a day biking. This year, I’ve racked up roughly six thousand miles and 500,000 feet of elevation gain. That’s not normal. That’s obsessive behavior by any stretch of the imagination.

To the extent that our lifestyles dictate our behavior, civilization itself is reinforcing many of our addictions. Notice I didn’t say “western civilization”, the usual escape goat. The truth is that you can go dig up any human society in deepest darkest Africa and you will find some addictions running rampant. The propensity for obsessive behavior is in our genes and has also been observed in many other species. Western civilization has merely increased the number of things we can obsess over and made them more readily available to us. Our answer, then, cannot be to attack each and every one of these negative addictions as a unique disease: to fight alcoholism with AA, food addictions with diets, cigarettes with the Nicotine patch, drug addiction with Methadone, etc. We’ve spent years and trillions of dollars doing that with little or no impact.


The right answer is to help people pick the right addictions, the positive ones, and to do so during our formative years - before the negative obsessions take root. Many of our addictions are formed during our childhood and adolescent years. That’s when we first experience cigarettes, alcohol, drugs, sex, and many other vices. That’s also when we become addicted to reading, to music, to studying, to sports. Instead of trying to stop the bad addictions once they’ve already taken root In our psyches, then, we should be spending more money and putting more effort into the years of youth, guiding children and teens into positive activities that will serve them - and the rest of society - throughout their lifetimes. We need more mentors, more engaging art and sports related opportunities, more investments in our future generations. And I bet it would cost a fraction of what we are spending on treatment and incarceration today.

As I mentioned earlier, I use the terms obsession and addiction interchangeably. Addictions are simply obsessions that are frowned upon by society, detrimental to ourselves and/or those around us in one way or another. We all carry the genes and, sooner or later, we all latch onto something and obsess over it. It almost doesn’t matter to us, to our genes, whether that obsession is a positive one or a negative one. We don’t have a gene for alcoholism and another one for gambling and a third one for smartphones, we have a gene for obsession. So the answer is not to penalize and demonize the negative addictions but rather to admit that we have such a genetic propensity built into us and to guide it in a positive direction – before it’s too late. Our current approach, I worry, is scatter-shot, entirely too reactive, and prohibitively expensive.

We’ve already learned that outlawing addictions doesn’t work. A century ago, alcohol was illegal in the United States. Today, it’s so ubiquitous that many people don’t even know about the prohibition and its historical consequences. American society tried to outlaw alcohol - through a constitutional amendment, no less - and failed miserably, eventually reversing course and making it available to the masses. At the end of the day, society realized that the addict, the alcoholic, will go to any lengths to get his hands on a bottle and outlawing alcohol would only open the door to bootleggers, moonshiners, gangsters, and a whole host of other problems. Society, at large, suffered when prohibition was in effect. We realized that repealing prohibition would harm the alcoholic but make many of the other negative societal effects of alcohol irrelevant. Implicitly, society is turning a blind eye to the addict. After all, he’s just harming himself by drinking so much. Let him do it. No skin off my back. This, of course, massively underestimates the communal impact of alcoholism: the broken marriages, the parental abuse, the drunk driving, etc. The current state of affairs, we seem to be saying, is better than what happened during prohibition. We’ll deal with the fallout later!

Addiction to gambling is another example that may be cited here. There are now casinos in pretty much every state in the union, a far cry from a few decades ago. Once again, society is punting on the problem, admitting that outlawing gambling caused more problems than it solved. Here, again, most of the “harm” is self-inflicted. Or, at least, myopically viewed as such by society at large.

It’s only when we cross the line with our addictions, when we get to impacting others with our obsessions, that society finally draws a hard line in the sand and says enough is enough. Pedophilia is as repulsive to most of us as it is addictive to its adherents. So is rape. Both of these crimes, I claim, are in fact addictions. The sexual predator doesn’t just happen to one day decide he wants to grab someone’s genitals. He spends hours upon hours fantasizing about it before he first reaches out. By the time he has sunk so low as to act upon his impulses, he is too far gone, too addicted to the endorphins he experiences just thinking about it. It’s too late to try to fix him then. The damage is already done. You’re fighting a losing battle. Sooner or later, the obsession will come back and take hold of him. The sad truth is that for every convicted pedophile or sexual pervert out there, there are thousands who thought it but never crossed the line. Meanwhile, we are busy punishing the few and ignoring the fact that ninety percent of the iceberg lies under water. We’re basically screwed. We have this gene in us that likes to obsess. And we have this brain that becomes addicted to high levels of endorphins. The best we can do is distract it with, exhaust it with, overwhelm it with positive obsessions.

It’s much cheaper for us, as a society, to invest in creating those positive obsessions in our youth than it is to try to treat the results of our negligence after the fact by punishing or treating people for their negative obsessions. The math, and hence my logic, is simple. The more hours spent engaged in and obsessing over positive activities, the less time I have to obsess over the negative ones. It’s a zero sum game, you see. There are only so many hours in a day. The answer is not to lock up the liquor in the cabinet, to tell teenagers it’s sinful to have sex before marriage, to make cigarette sales to minors illegal, to spend billions of dollars on diets, etc.  The answer is to get Junior so addicted to exercise or books or music, depending on his interests, that he won’t have time for the other stuff.

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