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.

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Bad Boys or Bad Science

So here’s a recent New Scientist title: “Bad Boys Can Blame Their Behaviour on Hormones.”

All I can think is: New Scientist, Old School. Old, as in nature-nurture old and biological determinism old. Old as in moldy, rusted, failing ideas old.

But it’s not just New Scientist. Discover matches New Scientist with, “Teenage Hoodlums Can Blame Bad Behavior on Hormones.” And The Daily Mail delivers “Now Teenage Thugs Can Blame Their Hormones for Bad Behaviour.”

So what’s the problem? Well, it’s two-fold. First are journalists playing out a cultural script just like they subscribe to old-school cultural determinism. And second is some bad research that, not coincidentally, helps the journalists act like cultural automatons.

The cultural model goes like this: stereotypes, then blame, then biology. Take a stereotype we fear (“we” meaning journalists and readers alike). Bring in the politics and ideology of blame – hey, there’s a reason they are not like us, and why they threaten us. Invoke a cause, generally biological (though cultural causes come up too), outside of our particular realm of control. Hormones, nothing we can do about that, it means they were bad from the get-go. So we’re right to fear them and better make sure they don’t hurt us, whatever it takes.

Don’t believe me? Just look at the photos that accompany the articles. At the Daily Mail, a hooded guy point his hand like a gun at us the reader. Over at Discover, a crazed man with a clenched fist yells in our faces.

We all know journalists will play to stereotypes and will get research wrong and so forth. But in this case, like in most of the biologically-oriented research about complex human phenomena, the research only feeds into journalists typing out the normal crap.

The article in question is “Cortisol Diurnal Rhythm and Stress Reactivity in Male Adolescents with Early-Onset or Adolescence-Onset Conduct Disorder” (full access) by Graeme Fairchild, Stephanie van Goozen et al. and appears in the October 2008 issue of Biological Psychiatry. Neurocritic gives us the overview of the article if you don’t want to read the whole thing. (While I liked the Bad Boys music, I could have done with some more criticism in this particular Neurocritic post – but that’s okay, I’m going to play the bad boy this time.) Here’s the popular take from New Scientist on the article:

Out-of-control boys facing spells in detention or anti-social behaviour orders can now blame it all on their hormones. The “stress hormone” cortisol – or low levels of it – may be responsible for male aggressive antisocial behaviour, according to new research. The work suggests that the hormone may restrain aggression in stressful situations. Researchers found that levels of cortisol fell when delinquent boys played a stressful video game, the opposite of what was seen in control volunteers playing the same game.

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Neuroprospecting: Mining cultures for neuro-behavioural data

Bioprospecting: pursuit of plant-derived chemicals for pharmaceuticals: the process of searching for and extracting potential pharmaceutical compounds from plants.

Neuroprospecting: pursuit of culture-specific behaviours for neuroscience: the process of searching and extracting potential neuro-behavioural data from cultures.


Group Sari Bunuan Macan Andaleh play Gendang Tambuah in a procession
Photo: Paul Mason

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Christof Koch and the Neural Correlates of Consciousness


Scholarpedia has an entire entry on the neural correlates of consciousness, which argues for including the neural correlates for conscious precepts (that’s a dog!) as any part of understanding how we are consciously aware. In this case, the neural correlates of both basal arousal (see image below) and activity in the inferior temporal cortex are necessary for us to be consciously aware.

This Scholarpedia page is maintained by Christof Koch and Florian Mormann, both at Caltech. Mormann is a post-doc; his latest article on “Latency and selectivity of single neurons indicate hierarchical processing in the human medial temporal lobe” (pdf) appeared in the Journal of Neuroscience.

Koch wrote the popular book The Quest for Consciousness: A Neurobiological Approach based on his collaborative work with Francis Crick. Here is Michael Shermer reviewing the book at Scientific American:
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Colour, is it in the brain?

Colour is a perceptual interaction arising from our ability to discriminate between different wavelengths of light from within a narrow band of electromagnetic radiation. Light itself has no colour. The colour of a specific wavelength can change according to context. For example, in the above picture, despite having the same spectral reflectance, the ‘X’ appears to be different when set against the two different backgrounds (Albers J. 1975). Continue reading “Colour, is it in the brain?”

Edelman, Evolution and Encephalisation

The brain exhibits all of the properties of an evolutionary system. In the developing brain, there is an initial oversupply of neurons. The combinatorial possibilities that exist within and between neuronal groups is a source of variation that is selected from. The brain, which is only approx. 25% formed at birth, matures through processes of degeneracy and associativity. The dynamic interplay between the variation and selection of neuronal groups is a source of self-organisation. The brain has the capacity to store patterns of activation and to recreate acts separated in time from the original events. Memory biases the processes of organisation towards increased complexity. (For a more extensive explanation of the brain as an evolutionary system see Edelman 1987; 1993; 2004).

To be honest, I have not met many people who truly understand every aspect of Edelman’s theory of neuronal group selection (TNGS). In fact, if I have gone some way to understanding some part of his theory, then it has been largely through my reading of secondary literature material, returning frequently to his new books and then discussing his work with some of my friends Continue reading “Edelman, Evolution and Encephalisation”