Sunday, May 27, 2007

Addiction and free will

I read recently that Harvard Provost Stephen Hyman gave a lecture titled, “Compulsion and the Brain: Subverting the Concept of Self-Control.” It reminded me of a conversation I once had with my addicted son, then in his 20s.

So the question is: once addicted, how much choice DOES a person have in using? Do they go on autopilot and just feed the need? Or is there some point at which they can actually stop and evaluate the situation?

In the conversation with my son, I pointed out that the first time he was offered some, he clearly made the choice to use. He agreed. After that, he said, it was harder to tell when it was a choice vs. an automatic reaction. But more than once in the past 14 years, he did make the decision to stop using. Relapse has always followed.

Please take just a minute and read a short portion of Dr. Hyman’s lecture transcript that’s posted at He describes the changes that happen in the circuitry of the brain that cause a person to lose control over goal-setting and goal-seeking.

As a result, because the addicts’ brains are so compromised, Hyman says it is necessary for others — families, friends, and institutions — to fill in and act almost like “a prosthesis” for the brain functions that are missing or disabled. In order to succeed, however, they must be “absolutely relentless,” added Hyman.

But that raises the question, how can family members fill in for missing or disabled brain functions and still maintain a healthy perspective? How can we continue to pull away from a codependent relationship and offer that help without enabling?

Does anyone out there know?

His final point was one of responsibility. “Drug addiction is a very dramatic form of compulsion,” he said. “We are probably a little less in control than we’d like to believe we are.” Nevertheless, Hyman believes that addicts should still be held responsible for their actions.“The fiction that they are responsible may be what gets them to change their behavior,” he said. “A society that errs on the side of holding people responsible is better than a society that errs on the side of giving people excuses.”

There are actually clinically proven reasons for holding people responsible for their actions, Hyman said. Experiments have shown that people function better and are more able to deal with stress when they feel that they are in control.“We are wired for personal responsibility, even if it’s a bit fictional.”

1 comment:

All Blog Spots said...

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