The indelicate problem was this: Marc Lewis, the budding psychologist, would break into a building to steal drugs, especially Demerol, to junk into his arm, and then the urge would hit him.
“Whenever I broke into a medical centre I would have to go and poo,” he says over the telephone from the Netherlands. Needless to say, a bandit who has to visit the can every time he commits a break-in is asking for trouble.
Dr. Lewis found it. After 15 years of drug addiction – cough syrup and pot at high school, heroin and acid at Berkeley in the late 1960s, opium in India and all that plus methamphetamine as a 30-year-old graduate student in Windsor and Thunder Bay – he was finally caught in the act and sentenced to months of probation.
It was only then – ashamed, ditched by his girlfriend and finally crushed by a life of substance abuse – that he set off to try to understand the workings of the mind and, eventually, what lies at the heart of addiction.
The result of that long, strange journey is his new book, Memoirs of an Addicted Brain: A Neuroscientist Examines his Former Life on Drugs.
Out next week, it is set to make a counterintuitive splash in the vast sea of brain books that includes the bestselling The Brain That Changes Itself (Canada's Norman Doidge) and Just One Thing: Developing a Buddha Brain One Simple Practice at a Time (the latest by neuropsychologist Rick Hanson).
Memoirs of an Addicted Brain, however, takes on all of human longing. Unlike many of his brain science colleagues and fellow addicts, Dr. Lewis can write.
One moment, he is remembering the details of his life as an addict; the next, he is reconstructing, based on newer scientific findings, what the drugs were doing to his brain.
The result is not just a book about a brain on drugs, but a picture of addiction as an unavoidable urge of human nature.
The human brain turns out to be a sucker for pleasure, driven by the desire to feel relief from the watchfulness of being human. With the naturally occurring anxieties of life – loneliness, randomness, death – further compounded by the non-stop technologies of the godless 20th century, it is a wonder that only 10 to 20 per cent of us (Dr. Lewis's estimate) are functionally addicted to something or other.
This is your brain on dopamine
Using neurophysiology to understand addiction is a particularly effective storytelling device because drugs engage every part of the brain. Meaning (in the limbic system), physical sensations (in the brain stem), memory (from the hippocampus and elsewhere), emotions (the amygdala), ideas and decision-making (the cortex) are driven by a quiver of neurotransmitters – the main culprits (for Dr. Lewis's purposes) being dopamine, which makes us long to feel good, and opioids, which actually make us feel good (and produce more dopamine, just to keep the cycle going).
“It is dopamine's flame of desire,” Dr. Lewis writes, “unleashed by the ahhh of opioids, that causes animals to repeat behaviours that lead to satisfaction. Here in one neat package is the chemistry of learning. … Yet there's a downside: the slippery slope, the repetition compulsion, that constitutes addiction. In other words, addiction may be a form of learning gone bad.”
Heroin, pot, opium, laughing gas, ketamine and other members of the good doctor's extensive phantasmagoria supply usually hard-earned satisfactions instantaneously – whereupon the ever-plastic, quickly-learning brain turns the short cuts into the only route open to the top of the mountain. Addiction is how the brain corrupts itself. As Dr. Lewis notes in the opening sentence of his book: “We are prone to a cycle of craving what we don't have, finding it, using it up or losing it, then craving it all the more. This cycle is the root of all addictions – addictions to drugs, sex, love, cigarettes, soap operas, wealth and wisdom itself.”
His descriptions of how various drugs produce their effects will ring many bells on their own. But it's the way he drapes his scientific understanding of human chemical function over the frame of his own life that makes his memoir compelling.