Are we addicted to the concept of addiction?
Neuropsychologist Vaughn Bell thinks so. In a provocative article published Friday in the online magazine Slate, Bell (who also writes the always interesting blog Mindhacks) discusses how the “creeping medicalization of everyday life means that almost any problem of excess can now be portrayed as an individual falling foul of a major mental illness.”
“While drug addiction is a serious concern and a well-researched condition,” writes Bell, “many of the new behavioral addictions lack even the most basic conditions of scientific reliability.”
Bell points to the eagerness with which the media has been labeling Tiger Woods’ extramarital behavior a “sex addiction” and the opening earlier this year of the first clinic (in Washington state) for the treatment of “Internet addiction” as examples of how we apply the concept of addiction “to any behavior that seems troublesome or ill-advised.”
“Despite the scientific implausibility of the same disease — addiction — underlying both damaging heroin use and overenthusiasm for World of Warcraft, the concept has run wild in the popular imagination,” he says. “Our enthusiasm for labeling new forms of addictions seems to have arisen from a perfect storm of pop medicine, pseudo-neuroscience, and misplaced sympathy for the miserable.”
One “vacuous piece of pseudo-neuroscience” that mental health professionals themselves often tout, says Bell, is the idea that addiction can be explained by the actions of the neurotransmitter dopamine.
“When anyone wants to convince you that something should really count as an addiction, they’ll quote the fact that it ‘raises dopamine levels,’” he writes. But the science is much more complicated than that, as Bell points out:
There’s no direct one-to-one relationship between dopamine and addiction, and knowing that this particular brain chemical is released during an activity predicts nothing about how problematic the activity might be. As the dopamine system starts working when we encounter anything pleasurable, the popular myth would suggest everything we like could be addictive: reading books, scratching an itch, building model steamships out of matchsticks, whatever floats your boat.
In fact, Bell points out, one dopamine-fueled behavior — being a sports fan — can have all the same serious personal and social consequences as being a fan of the World of Warcraft, but it wouldn’t get you admitted into a private clinic for “addiction therapy.”
There are consequences for our addiction to the idea of addiction: People may not be getting the kind of help they really need. Writes Bell:
Currently, we are concerned about young people using the Internet, eating too much, spending irresponsibly, and being promiscuous, and these worries are being expressed in the language of addiction…. For these problems, addiction is little more than a fig leaf for a realistic understanding that would address why people return to unhelpful ways of coping with isolation, stress, and depression. Instead, we prefer to rely on a trite and unhelpful catch-all label that prevents people from getting appropriate help for their difficulties. We need to break the addiction habit, before it breaks us.