Tag Archives: addiction

Because the word “addiction”…

… is in no way devalued or debased in its colloquial usage by people without any experience of a genuine and debilitating addiction (as opposed to a strong preference for the presence of something rather than its absence, perhaps, or the sense of being accustomed to ready access to a tool which facilitates social exchange and other functions suited to an urban lifestyle), and because people never exaggerate in response to leading questions in surveys, we must presume – with great sadness and pity at the decline of humanity into mere flesh-blob slaves of their own technologies – that OFCOM have uncovered a great tragedy in the making.

In other news, huge swathes of the population are revealed to be “addicted” to shoes, motor vehicles and clean running water! THE END IS NIGH.


The evolution of addiction and the fetishisation of smoking

Not-entirely-unsurprising news from the world of evolutionary psychiatry: human use of psychoactive compounds found in plants and animals is thousands of years old, and evolutionary selection may actually have favoured those of our ancestors who were wired to get a kick from certain substances:

According to Randolph Nesse, evolutionary psychiatrist at the University of Michigan, at some time in humanity’s distant past, individuals whose brains had a heightened response to emotion-linked neurotransmitters (such as dopamine and serotonin) were better suited to survival.

This meant that as the generations passed, heightened response became the norm. […]

Archaeologists have found evidence of kola nut (caffeine), tobacco (nicotine), khat (an amphetamine-like plant), betel nut, and coca, at various sites dating back at least 13,000 years, indicating that humans have, in fact, been drug users for a very long time. Across the globe, people in non-Western cultures are very familiar with these and other mind-altering substances.

“It’s widely believed that human drug use is a new and pathological phenomenon,” says Roger Sullivan, an anthropologist at California State University at Sacramento. “But psychoactive plant toxins were a mundane occurrence in the environments of hominid evolution, and our ancestors may have been exploiting plant drugs for very long periods of time.”

Sullivan and Edward Hagen of Humbolt University in Berlin believe that compulsively seeking these items in the past might have been adaptive during times when nutrients were hard to find.

Human beings: getting baked to deal with hard times since 11,000 BC. Goes some way to explaining why drug legislation – a very very recent phenomenon indeed – has done so little to stop folk wanting to get loaded… and promises a whole new generation of slogans from psychoactive evangelists.

Speaking of legislation, control and addictive substances, here’s a research project of staggering pointlessness: how many videos of people smoking cigarettes in a fetishistic context are easily viewable by teenagers on YouTube?

“The high frequency of smoking fetish videos concerns me,” says Hye-Jin Paek,  associate professor of advertising, public relations, and retailing.

(With that sort of background, one assumes she’s eminently qualified to know how well associative imagery can push psychological buttons… )

Paek conducted the study of “smoking fetish” videos—videos that combine smoking and sexuality. “The fact that we can see the videos and analyze their content means that teenagers can see them too.


The majority of smoking fetish videos studied explicitly portrayed smoking behaviors, such as lighting up, inhaling, exhaling, and holding the tobacco product. More than half were rated PG-13 or R.

More than 21 percent of the videos contained at least one of the five fetish elements defined in the paper, including gloves, high heels, boots, stockings, and leather or latex clothes.

More than a fifth? O NOES! Well then, we’d better censor all that stuff pretty sharpish, hadn’t we – after all, wrapping up a behaviour one wants to discourage in veiled mystique, puritanical panics and age restrictions has always worked so well before… if we airbrush out everything we don’t like in the world, eventually everyone will be just as self-satisfied as we are!

[ Pre-emptive: I’m not suggesting that teenagers or anyone else smoking cigarettes is a “good” thing. What I’m suggesting is that worrying about videos of people smoking on YouTube as a strong cause of such is laughably foolish. ]

Behavioural bribery: the sublime and the scary

Compare and contrast:

TIME reports on the research of a Harvard economist that strongly suggests financial reward structures are a highly effective way of motivating academic performance and/or good behaviour in school-aged children. (We mentioned this last year, as it happens.)

Meanwhile, did you know there’s a “charitable” organisation in the US that offers drug addicts a cash incentive to apply for sterilisation – not of their needles, but of themselves? [via Lauren Beukes] And they’re coming to the UK, too, which is a relief – I was thinking only the other day that we just don’t have enough heavy-handed moralising in this country.

The true cost of internet addiction: US$14,500

internet cafe signFinally, the spurious demon of  internet addiction gets its own Betty Ford clinic – complete with a scarily large price-tag. Ars Technica reports on the reSTART program that has just been launched by the Heavensfield Retreat Center in Washington State; enrolment for qualifying internet addicts has just begun, so block-book your 45-day break immediately! I guess you’ll not want to mark it in Google Calendar, though… [image by James Cridland]

Heavensfield certainly makes it sound like a professional and fully featured program, though:

reSTART offers counseling with professionally-trained staff, group therapy, vocational coaching, 12-step meetings, recreational activities, “high adventure” outings, health and fitness programs, and volunteer service. This is in addition to psychiatric assessments, medical treatment, scholastic tutoring, and career guidance. As pointed out by Mashable, you must qualify for reSTART by displaying symptoms of IAD, which include a strong impulse to use the Internet, withdrawal symptoms without it, a reduction in other interests or social activities as a result of the Internet, and an impairment of everyday life.

Hmm; that all sounds rather like someone I know… but then doesn’t pretty much anyone who isn’t a teetotaller come out looking like an alcoholic on the Alcoholics Anonymous tests?

That said, much as I’m skeptical about a high-dollar treatment program designed to cure it, I’m pretty sure there is an addictive component to the internet – my recent weeks without it were pure hell, though that was as much to do with being unable to work for my clients (and hence pay my rent) as anything else. Whether the addiction is a basic physiological response or a reflection of how swiftly and completely our social culture has migrated onto the intertubes remains a topic for debate, I think.

Big Food: What to do about hypereating

lolHere’s an optimistic vision of the future, from the last page of The End of Overeating by former US Food & Drug Administration commissioner David A. Kessler, MD (available here and elsewhere; reviewed here; author interview by Stephen Colbert here.)

A change in perspective cannot be imposed with mandates, but must evolve as a social consensus. The goal is not to vilify all food and those who serve it, but to change our thinking about big food, those huge portions of layered and loaded food with little nutritional value. We need to look differently at the people and the places that serve it. When their power to manipulate our behavior becomes fully transparent, cues will lose their capacity to entice. Instead of expecting food to be served at every social and business occasion, we’ll realize that many offers of food outside mealtimes do not serve anyone’s interest.

In the future, new social norms and values will emerge, and food choices, offered in smaller portion sizes, will seem ‘right’ to us. That will be what we come to expect, and that will be what we want.

So, yes, as research for my optimstic sf story, I broke down, bought, and read this book, which is short, readable, and provocative.

Kessler’s thesis is that since the 80s, millions of Americans have been on a binge of conditioned hypereating, brought about by a food industry that knows how to get people to keep chowing down even when they’ve eaten more than enough. They do it with marketing, focus grouping, advertising, and even such childishly simple methods as making food easier to chew and swallow.

Kessler cites enough neuroscience data from human and animal experiments to put together a working hypothesis of marketing-driven food addiction. Among other things, the industry excels at creating tastes, textures, situations, and associations that rewire the brain to want more and more of certain kinds of foods. For example,

…[A]n animal that eats a combination of sucrose, chocolate, and alcohol releases the greatest levels of dopamine [a brain chemical associated with “attentional bias.”].

Not surprisingly, these foods have layers of sugar, salt, and fats — often in repeating geological layers. It’s akin to the tobacco industry’s striving to make cigarettes even more addictive. The food merchants seem to accomplish their goals more by trial and error than through pure research, but the result is plain for all to see: A serious obesity problem with, at the very least, a larger health care bill attached.

People need to take responsibility, and Kessler lays out some steps that will probably spawn a lot of self-help books (some of us can use the help). He simply asks that people watch how they feel when exposed to food or come-ons to the same, and alter their behavior accordingly. And maybe do what the French, he says, do, or at least used to do: Take your time at the table, and don’t eat between meals. Old-fashioned, and easier said than done.

He has policy suggestions, too. Some of them ought to be adopted for the sheer entertainment value of the outrage and resistance they’re likely to provoke.

  • Restaurants should list calorie counts, “by mandate, if they’re not willing to do so voluntarily.
  • Food package labels should contain percentages of added sugars, refined carbs, and fats.
  • Public education should focus a jaundiced eye on “big food.”
  • And my personal favorite: Marketing should be monitored and exposed.

Our greatest gift to future generations … would be to find a way to prevent the cue-urge-reward-habit cycle from ever taking hold.

There’s optimism for you. And there’s got to be some way to turn this into a story.

[I Can Haz Cheezburger?, due to sheer lack of willpower]