Wanting to Craving: Understanding Compulsive Involvement with Drugs

By Daniel Lende

A long-time research project of mine has been to understand how adolescents get hooked on drugs. Querer más y más, as they say in Colombia, to want more and more. When people get addicted – whatever the substance may be – they often report urges, cravings, and obsessive thinking as a primary force in why they keep using or relapse. Knowing the consequences often doesn’t matter, especially in those moments when that desire feels hot as a knife.

The easiest analogy for me to help people understand this type of desire is to ask people to think about that one time they really craved something to eat. Yes, that time, when you just had to have it. Most people have experienced this one time or another. With substance abuse, craving like this often becomes an unpredictable constant, something that comes on in the morning or while walking by a favorite bar or seeing a friend who has that gleam in his eye and a crooked smile on his face.

So here is what I found in Colombia, reported in a 2005 Ethos article entitled Wanting and Drug Use: A Biocultural Approach to Addiction (click for the full paper: Lende Wanting pdf). The abstract goes:

The integration of neurobiology into ethnographic research represents one fruitful way of doing biocultural research. Based on animal research, incentive salience has been proposed as the proximate function of the mesolimbic dopamine system, the main brain system implicated in drug abuse (Robinson and Berridge 2001). The research presented here examines incentive salience as the mediator of the wanting and seeking seen in drug abuse. Based on field work with adolescents at a school and a drug treatment center in Bogotá, Colombia, this article addresses: 1) the development of a scale to measure the amount of incentive salience felt for drugs and drug use; 2) the results from a risk-factor survey that examined the role of incentive salience and other risk factors in addiction; and 3) the ethnographic results from in-depth interviews with Colombian adolescents examining dimensions of salience in the reported experiences of drug use. Incentive salience proved to be a significant predictor of addicted status in logistic regression analysis of data from 267 adolescents. Ethnographic results indicated that incentive salience applies both to drug seeking and drug use, and confirmed the importance of wanting, a sense of engagement, and shifts in attention as central dimensions of experiences related to drug use.

Several years later, I like to highlight several things about this research. First, different domains of subjective involvement can be linked to dopamine –wanting more and more, the sense of an urge or push to use (often not a conscious desire), and the heightened focus on places and actions and times that lead to using. The scale I developed showed good internal consistency, adding support that these three senses of compulsive involvement are linked. If you want to know more about the scale, I have done a separate post detailing the compulsive involvement scale in both Spanish and English versions.

Second, the original theory of incentive salience and addiction was developed by Terry Robinson and Kent Berridge at the University of Michigan. (Here’s a recent summary paper of theirs on incentive salience and addiction.) Incentive salience has generally focused on the desire to use drugs, on motivations to use, and separated those from the pleasure or high associated with actually using drugs. My ethnographic research clearly showed that hard-core drugs users often felt surges in desire while using, not just in deciding to go use or seeking out drugs. Querer más y más, to want more and more, often referred to what happened while using. This effect helps to explain the often extraordinary amounts of drugs that some addicts use. It is that rabid urge to continue, to have more, and not just tolerance to a drug, that helps drive the excess often associated with substance abuse.

Third, neuroscientists are plain wrong if they try to reduce craving or desire to the combination of the pharmacological drug action and brain circuits. This common approach does not answer what it is that hard-core users want – it assumes that sensitization and chemicals account for everything (or at least everything that counts). Put differently, why do addicts want drugs?

A disease model or a moral model of addiction cannot answer this question because they assume cause already – it’s a biological problem or a failure in willpower. That avoids addressing what people themselves can tell us about their use. Brain imaging in humans also doesn’t answer the “why” question – scans can show neural correlates associated with craving, but they cannot get at the content of our experiences and our thoughts.

Anthropology can! The question that I devised to help hard-core users explain to me why was rather simple. “Think of your experiences while using as an imaginary place. What sort of place would that be?” For an anthropologist, or anyone interested in subjective experience, this question had one all-important point – it gave me data; it helped my respondents articulate their experiences in words that I could then analyze. It may be not be quite as fancy or expensive as neuro-imaging, but it too let me peer inside someone else’s head.

I will also admit that the question thrilled me because I knew some hard-core neuroscientists and the way they thought about the brain and addiction. Wanting, that’s just dopamine, they argued. Most of them struggled significantly more with imaginary places.

But the best thing about the question was the answers. Kids who had never used did not understand this question at all. But teenagers who used frequently, they got this question immediately. I still remember one of the first boys, a recovering cocaine addict at a local school who was now a heavy smoker. I asked him the question first about smoking. He looked down at his hand and put his fingers together like he held a cigarette. “A world in there? No,” he said. “But cocaine, oh yeah.”

In the end, what I found was that both cultural symbols and an individual’s sense of self impact what users experience. One girl who smoked marijuana nearly every day explained what she sought from using: “estar en un video,” to be in a video, where attention was shifted away from how she felt in her traumatic yet culturally valued family environment. Sure, the dopamine helped produce that shift in attention, but the idiom of “a video” was something cultural. In the end that was what she really wanted, to feel those “so present sensations” from marijuana that put her in a video that seemed, for a moment, far from home.

13 thoughts on “Wanting to Craving: Understanding Compulsive Involvement with Drugs

  1. The link to the PDF of your paper is broken. A pity because it looks fascinating!

    I’ll hold off further comment until I’ve read it, but one thing that struck me was that it’s not just addiction research which would benefit from your approach. As a researcher on depression and also a sufferer, I’m often struck by how crudely depression is described by most scientists and even clinicians. A lot of what I read about depression just doesn’t fit with my experiences, and in fact I’ve never met a patient for who it does fit perfectly.

    Likewise if you read about antidepressants, all you learn about them is that they treat depression and then you get pharmacological theories to try to explain why – there’s almost nothing in the literature about what they actually do to you, what it feels like to take them. I’ve found antidepressants to be extremely helpful, but not in the ways that I expected based on what I read.

    The impression I get is that things used to be better. A lot of the early writings on depression and the early reports on antipsychotics and antidepressants from the 1950s were richly detailed. Then somewhere along the way people lost sight of the human reality and got interested in the pharmacology. Don’t get me wrong, I love pharmacology, but it’s only worth doing if it’s going to connect back to real experience.

  2. The pdf link is fixed. Thanks for letting me know.

    I agree with you, this approach could be applied to a wide range of issues – psychiatric disorders, behavioral problems, stress, and even onto other areas like shopping, gambling, sex, and more. Other neuroanthropologists, like Greg, also see links for sports or memory.

    In my case, it comes down to two core issues: the translation problem bewteen neuroscience/brain function and everyday life and doing systematic qualitative research focused on getting the data. I think finding ways to test any resulting ideas is also important (hence the scale), as is theory development. But in the end, looking directly at what antidepressants actually do at the level of the person or the way stress feels and impacts a person’s life can greatly enrich our understanding.

    My hope is that will then lead to creative new ways to think about and work with a range of problems.

  3. I just stumbled onto this article by accident while looking up genetic predisposition to addiction and think that the question you address is very important to understanding addiction to drugs; possibly even more important than the physical/chemical science behind substance abuse. I can totally understand the way the world shifts in one’s mind while on drugs and the way ones experiences while high can be described as an imaginary place/different world. Personally when using weed time seems to move both slower and faster at the same time, and the world generally seems to be a brighter, more vibrant place. Not only that but the physical aspects of drugs are appealing because they make you happier and more open to seeing the world differently.

    I just wonder whether it’s because of the physical effects that one experiences lead to the psychological effects, and if the drugs only have that possibility to see (or be in) a different world is because it affects this specific system. Also this raises the question about other non-drug addictions and the cultural reason behind those types of addiction, like why do people get addicted to say gambling. It doesn’t change the way you think or see the world like drugs do, and wouldn’t this be an example of an addiction that doesn’t require more than brain chemistry or the reward system? or is there a cultural reasoning behind addictions like gambling and shopping?

    Besides the actual reaction in the brain — the release of dopamine — the culture aspects and how peoples brains and thought processes change while on drugs is important to the root of addiction. Very interesting ideas and science.

  4. Having read the above mentioned paper on ‘incentive salience’ and addiction, I feel like the greater examination of the subjective experiences of individual users/abusers of psychoactive substances is a good start and quite interesting. This particular study is somewhat limited though in terms of depth and comprehensiveness, as a result of it’s only having included adolescents, in whom I feel, powers of introspection,self awareness and language skills seem not very fully developed. An interesting avenue to explore I think would be the social psychology and also ‘incentive salience’ driving long term use in adults,especially those that manage to function reasonably well in our societal social construct. Exploration of the idea that psychotropic drug use might be seen (by subjects surveyed or interviewed) as a way to escape the seemingly mundane and wrote banalities of our existence, to a place where magic,complexity, possibility, interrelated ideas and community, relationships are more apparent and readily manifest. Where nuanced artistic, holistic, spiritual ideas are more readily accessible ‘under the influence.’ I am talking about blue collar and white collar individuals from all walks of life,also to include, artists (of all genre), teachers, philosophers and yes even scientists, who partake, regularly, intermittently, seldom, or otherwise, because of the layers of existence revealed, the subtleties, the correlations, the humor and silliness, the pathos the tangential musing and yes, the plain escapism that certain drugs afford. Really, abuse and the detrimental effects to the human physiology, influences and correlations of the mesolimbic dopamine system, have been long studied, as have specific social, societal and even genetic vulnerabilities,but that arc of inquiry really seems to presuppose in the individual an out of control self destructiveness, or alternatively, a desire to just ‘check out’ from the responsibilities or harsh realities of this life, when in fact so much more has been demonstrated to be going on for people in terms of their reasons for using certain substances regularly. Motivations for use would be found to be much more nuanced I think, with an inquiry that focused on those individuals who were not compelled to demonstrate a desire to atone ,have been ‘criminalized’ by the system, or were made to feel less than by low socioeconomic status (perceived or real) or were currently enrolled in a ‘program’ aimed at some form of rehabilitation. In other, words query a broad cross section of ordinary people(not adolescents/children) who function in society and who have used, or regularly use drugs, or even ceremonially use drugs, and may or may not readily demonstrate, ‘gross attention to’, or ‘incentive salience’ to use. That is the comprehensive study that is going to have some real meaning and from which useful data could be mined.

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