Thursday, August 10, 2017

Maia Szalavitz

"In actuality [addiction] is a form of pathologic learning," Szalavitz said. "With addiction overwhelming changes occur in the brain region involving areas that evolved for things like love and sex and feeding. All these things that are fundamental to reproduction."

That means addiction will create what Szalavitz calls "very powerful drives" — strong desires to take the drug repeatedly even if it's not providing any pleasant effects. But it doesn't make addicts totally powerless either.

"We've just been getting this completely backwards, by failing to address the role of learning," she said. "If you want to call it a disease, the kind of disease it is is a learning disease."

This has been proved time and time again with things like clean needle exchanges, in which providing addicts with access to sterile needles has resulted in dramatically reduced rates of diseases like HIV and AIDS. "The way it's been framed as a disease is people can't control anything about themselves — they wouldn't use clean needles or try to protect their health in any way, but that's been proven false with things like needle exchanges."

Evidence that addicts can learn healthy behavior is crucial, because it highlights the role addiction plays in learning. It's also incredibly hopeful, because it suggests that addicts can change, provided they have access to the right resources.

"The bottom line in terms of this is that we know people with addiction have a skewed decision-making system, but they don't have no free will," Szalavitz said.