By Daniel Lende
“You study sin,” my dinner companion said with a smile at a recent conference. I reached for my wine, and after a modest sip (really!), replied, “Vicio. In Colombia it’s called vicio. Vices.”
In Colombia vicio covers a whole range of activities—video games, playing pool, and yes, drugs. Even better, when vicio becomes the adjective “enviciador,” favorite snacks and sweets come into the picture. People start to eat, and it’s hard to stop until every piece of candy is gone.
I like the Colombian category of vicio, because I see something common in the way people get hooked on things, the way they want and crave this or that. I have seen it with food, with sex, with gambling and smoking cigarettes in both the United States and Colombia. But I have seen “getting hooked” best with drugs.
In today’s world drugs stand in for sin pretty well. Just in April Pope Benedict XVI declared drug use a deadly sin. In the United States drug users are often seen as moral degenerates. In this moral model of addiction, people lack willpower. As the tagline to a recent HBO series on addiction went, Why can’t they just stop?
But with addiction, the disease model has slowly come to the fore, highlighted by Alan Leshner, the then-head of the National Institute of Drugs Abuse, declaring in Science that “Addiction Is a Brain Disease, and It Matters.”
Morals versus brains. Or culture versus biology. Just yesterday in a talk someone asked about gender, “So is this biology or is this culture?”
How can we escape this constricting dichotomy? As I discussed in an interview with Jonah Lehrer over at Scientific American’s Mind Matters, I think a focus on concrete problems is the way to go. Specifics will help get us to where we need to go, not theories based on old ideas.
Indeed, grand pronouncements of consilience or some over-arching theory forget about Newton and his very concrete apple. As the poet Lord Byron wrote:
When Newton saw an apple fall, he found
In that slight startle from his contemplation –
‘Tis said (for I’ll not answer above ground
For any sage’s creed or calculation) –
A mode of proving that the earth turn’d round
In a most natural whirl, called “gravitation;”
And this is the sole mortal who could grapple,
Since Adam, with a fall or with an apple.
Today we’ve got the physics of an apple down, and we are turning back to the problem facing Adam. The tree of knowledge is both tempting and sweet. So just how are we to understand the apple of my eye?
My concrete problem has been craving, that compulsive desire drug users can experience and which plays such a powerful role in relapse in excessive use and relapse. In both the popular accounts and scientific literature on addiction, dopamine often takes the blame for addiction. In understanding dopamine function, two prominent ways have been developed over the past decade – one focused on incentives and motivation, and the other on computation and learning. With addiction, the incentives and motivation approach has gained more traction, largely through the “incentive salience” work of Terry Robinson and Kent Berridge. Robinson and Berridge have often glossed dopamine function as “wanting” – and wanting just needs a little push to get to craving.
Their elegant work and sophisticated hypothesis testing have helped tease out a particularly thorny problem around addiction, that of pleasure versus desire. Earlier behaviorist theories largely assumed that pleasure was the ultimate reinforcer; no other mechanism was necessary to account for why animals went towards something rewarding. The work by Robinson and Berridge helped separate “wanting” versus “liking,” or as I explain to my students, the difference between that late-night craving for pizza, just a phone dial away, and that first exquisite bite of cheese and sauce and dough.
So the leap from lab to real life can be perilous. It’s a leap that I think anthropologists are better equipped to make than most. For my research on compulsive wanting and craving, what really made the difference was the combination of two strange bedfellows – evolution and ethnography. While for many that combination would be sinful in itself, the two helped take research on dopamine function and translate it into something I could use.
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