December 14, 2019

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Author uses his past to help dispel notion of addiction as disease

Hey there, time traveller!
This article was published 5/9/2015 (1561 days ago), so information in it may no longer be current.

You need not agree with Dr. Marc Lewis that addiction is more important than ever before to agree that it has become ubiquitous, springing up in the lives of politicians, entertainers, and even our relatives.

Lewis, a Canadian and former professor at the University of Toronto, is a widely published scholar currently teaching at Radboud University in the Netherlands. A previous book, Memoirs of an Addicted Brain: A Neuroscientist Examines his Former Life on Drugs, blends memoir and science in addiction studies.

"The way people become addicts and the way they move beyond their addictions is complicated and mysterious," Lewis writes in The Biology of Desire. "During periods of addiction, brains are remarkably stuck. The most candid thing one can say about neuroplasticity — brain change — during such times is that it's nowhere to be found."

One of the challenges of reading Lewis's text is contending with the difficult language. "Neuroplasticity" is one of the longer technical terms — there are many others.

Lewis presents his text in a half-dozen primary sections. In the first, he posits his main point — that addiction is not a disease. He then he lays out his arguments, illustrating each of the five arguments with case studies. The reader meets five principal characters, with a full chapter devoted to each.

In the end he goes on to reveal his own personal examples to illustrate his point about experiencing addictions. Lewis, who identifies himself as a neuroscientist and a professor, explains that he had difficulty reaching his students until he revealed he had been a drug addict through his early adulthood (most of his twenties), spending much time and energy "getting high and getting lost." He had terminated his drug-influenced approaches around the age of 30.

In examining examples from his own past, Lewis started thinking about the brain processes underlying addiction. His explanation of the way in which addiction became identified as a disease is that experts in various medical fields — psychiatry, physiology, and others — argued addictions produce changes in the brain.

An important influence on the side of treating alcoholics with support groups was Alcoholics Anonymous (AA), formed in the 1930s. The premise of AA is that alcoholics are suffering human beings who have the right — and a kind of obligation — to try to relieve their difficulty through mutual support, ongoing group activity and vigilant attention to spiritual needs.

Lewis argues that the changes arising from addictions represent development, not disease; he proceeds to demonstrate his point by examining a series of cases. As a neuroscientist and a professor, he takes his role of teacher very seriously — he's responsible for teaching students whatever he knows about the brain.

The brain is the foundation of our needs, our desires, our joy and suffering, he says, describing the parts and functions of the brain as well as the ways in which they develop and change. His diagrams and definitions are assets to understanding the most complex organ in the body — and the book also includes an index.

Overall, The Biology of Desire is an extremely comprehensive, although somewhat difficult, read.


Ron Kirbyson is a Winnipeg writer.


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