From the BlogMeet Ron

The attraction and conservatism of Habit.

The attraction and conservatism of Habit.

“What is particularly interesting to me is that brain changes in addiction also resemble those underlying sexual attraction and romantic love: the brain restructures itself, at least to an extent, when attraction runs high.”


Like racism, empathy, misogyny, patriotism, selfishness and selflessness, I would term addiction a ‘habit of mind’ – a habit of thinking and feeling that sometimes gets expressed in behaviour.


[ Repetition of Pattern ]

From a neural perspective, habits are patterns of synaptic activation that repeat, when connections among rapidly firing neurons fall into the same pattern over different occasions repeatedly. When a person thinks familiar thoughts or performs familiar actions, a vast number of synapses become activated in predictable – ie, habitual – configurations. Patterns of neural firing in one region become synchronised with patterns of firing in other regions, and that helps the participating synapses form these habitual configurations.

Whether you call something a skill or a habit, it can become learned and entrenched only by virtue of repeating patterns of synaptic activation.

With each repetition, activated synapses become reinforced or strengthened (due to modifications in the structure of each participating neuron), and alternative (less used) synapses become weakened or pruned.

[ Relational Activation ]

Meanwhile, active synapses give rise to the activation of other synapses with which they’re connected, and because synaptic connections between brain cells are almost always reciprocal, the reinforcing activation is returned.

Thus, repeated patterns of neural activation are self-perpetuating and self-reinforcing: they form circuits or pathways with an increasing probability of ‘lighting up’ whenever certain cues or stimuli (or thoughts or memories) are encountered. In neuroplasticity researcher Siegrid Löwel’s summation of neuropsychologist Donald Hebb’s rule: ‘Cells that fire together, wire together.’


[ Programmable Plasticity ]

Particular neural regions have been singled out as critically important in addiction, and I’ve spent years studying them. But we don’t have to parse the brain into regions in order to understand addiction as neural habit-formation.

Many regions of the forebrain are highly plastic or ‘programmable’ – and the tendency for firing patterns to be repeated and strengthened, crystallised and concretised, is a general principle, applicable throughout the cortex and limbic systems. In fact, it is a principle far more general than that, as it applies to all natural complex systems, in which structure evolves and consolidates, without being programmed from outside.

[ Self-Organising Organisms ]

All living systems, from organisms to societies, ecosystems to brains, are complex systems. Most important, they are self-organising systems.

That means that their structure, their shape and organisation, emerges from the interaction of many components that change each other over time. Those changes invoke a number of fascinating principles but, for our purposes, the most important feature of these systems is that they self-organise; their structure is self-perpetuating, due to recurrent interactions among their elements – little feedback loops.


[ Complex Systems: Attraction ]

It so happens that there is a robust scientific language for understanding habit-formation in self-organising systems, centred on the term ‘attractor’. An attractor is simply a stable state in a complex (dynamic) system.

So: seeds grow into trees and then stabilise to an attractor: the tree acquires a shape. Birds fly in sync with each other and form a V-shaped (or other-shaped) flock. Ecosystems go through periods of massive change (eg, speciation and species death) and then stabilise. Cities stabilise. Cultures stabilise. Even family dynamics stabilise – arguments inevitably repeat the same infuriating script.

[ Systemic Stabilisation ]

Complex systems are epitomised by elements such as individuals in a society or ecosystem, or cells in an organ or organism. These elements continue to interact – they cause changes in each other, which cause further changes in each other, and so forth – until they arrive at stable states, at least for a while.

(note: that we are not talking about the stability of a billiard ball that’s stopped moving. We are talking about stability in a system that continues to grow and change – as all natural complex systems must do.)

[ Social Self-Reinforcement ]

So what’s the point of a word such as ‘attractor?’ What does it offer us? Complex systems such as us and our brains reach stability in a very different way from roller skates or billiard balls. They have not lost their energy; they continue to grow and develop, to live. But for some period of time, the feedback loops that comprise them remain in sync, promoting steadiness or balance, like your body temperature after you’ve gotten used to a blast of wintry air. (Technically, this means that negative feedback rather than positive feedback now characterises system dynamics.) At that point, we can say that the system has reached its attractor. Its components now interact in a way we might call self-reinforcing.

[ Vortex of Attraction ]

The attractor idea is tremendously useful for describing the development of human habits, because human habits settle into place; they are not prescribed in advance by our genes, or determined by the environment.

But how exactly do attractors form in growing systems, why do they form, and why do they hold the system in place?

Attractors are often portrayed as valleys or wells on a flat surface, that surface representing many possible states for the system to occupy. The system, the person, can then be seen as a marble rolling around on this surface of possibilities until it rolls into an attractor well. And then it’s hard for it to roll back out. Physicists will say that the system requires extra energy to push itself out of its attractor. The analogy in human development might be the effort people need to expend in order to shift out of a particular pattern of thinking or acting.

[ Social Identity as Attraction ]

In human development, normative achievements can be seen as attractors. These might include learning to be a competent language user, or falling in love and having kids. But individual personality development can also be described in terms of attractors – recognisable features that characterise the individual in a particular way, features that persist over time.


[ Spiral of Depression ]

Addiction is just such an attractor. The staying power of addiction doesn’t derive from a good fit with the social world or the playing out of some species-specific predisposition. Addiction involves an intense relationship between a person and a substance or behaviour. That relationship is itself a feedback loop that has reached the stage of self-reinforcement, and it is interconnected with other feedback loops that facilitate the addictive pattern. These feedback loops have driven the system – the person, the person’s brain – into an attractor that deepens over time.

[ Separation Anxiety ]

Most obviously, addiction is characterised by a strong desire to pursue a substance or behaviour. The substance or activity temporarily relieves the desire, but a negative emotional state is left in its wake, into which loss, disappointment and anxiety flow once the activity is finished or no longer satisfies – or once the drugs or booze are gone.

And so, desire builds once again. In this way, addiction perpetuates the need it was intended to satisfy and, through repetition, the addict learns to satisfy the need by getting more, doing more, thus further consolidating the learning – and the neural patterns underlying it. What fires together wires together. Biology is not a prison, but you can’t flick it on and off with a switch.


[ Social Responsibility / Stress Relief ]

Brian taught in a community college in Cape Town, ran a successful business, and generally used his fine mind to good advantage. But the pileup of obligations and a mild attention-deficit problem saw him begin taking various stimulants to stay awake and clear-headed.

Within two years, he was smoking crystal meth several times per day. Sleep became sporadic and unpredictable. He could no longer think in straight lines, and fantastical whims soon replaced his customary rationality. His business fell apart, he moved in with his dealer, and his precious relationship with his young daughter turned into a parody of parenting, with him sneaking out to the car every hour or two for another hit. Meth comes on strong and brings with it clarity, optimism and brilliant energy. But Brian’s sleep loss meant that the high was increasingly short-lived. With the first hints of loss, he would grab for his pipe, eager beyond reason for another launch into stratospheric relief.

[ Social Isolation / Consolidation ]

Other (interconnected) feedback loops facilitate and consolidate addiction. They include social isolation, reinforced by the addiction, which leaves the addict with fewer opportunities to reconnect with people, or with healthier pleasures. They include the rationalisations that addicts know too well: if I’m such a bad person, or so misunderstood, then I might as well do it again. Brian was a self-reflective guy; he knew how much he had lost. His ongoing self-destruction seemed almost a grim retaliation for his enormous loss of perspective.


[ Negative Habit Formation ]

Addiction isn’t about rationality or choice; it’s not about character defects or bad parenting, even though childhood adversity is clearly a risk factor. Addiction is about habit formation, brought on through recurring, self-reinforcing feedback loops. And although choice is not obliterated by addiction, it is much harder to break deep habits than shallow ones.

[ Destructive Attractors ]

With respect to mental health more generally, addiction can be seen as one member of a family of attractors. Depression, anxiety disorders, post-traumatic stress disorders and other stable conditions are highly resilient despite their unpleasantness. They are identifiable as attractor states – unattractive attractors we might call them – as readily as addiction is, and they’re certainly as ubiquitous.

[ Widespread Suffering ]

According to classical learning theories, rewarded behaviours proliferate, while behaviours leading to adverse consequences tend to be extinguished. Yet clearly this is not the guiding principle of personality development. Rather, it seems that the most unpleasant conditions are the most likely to become entrenched. Mental and emotional states characterised by suffering appear in adolescent development with remarkable frequency, and they continue to dominate the personality and behaviour for years if not for life.

[ Lack of Medical Understanding ]

Why would such negative states become attractors, become concretised and stuck, as a general rule? Perhaps they are diseases. These are indeed the conditions that psychiatry has appropriated, labelled and pretended to understand – then remained impotent to prevent and treat. Psychiatry would have us view these stuck-points as mental illnesses: we can look them up in the DSM or the International Classification of Diseases, associate them with lists of probable symptoms. But that won’t help us explain them. Even the medications for these ‘illnesses’ are notoriously ineffective. Given this culture, it’s not surprising that addiction might be viewed as an illness too. But we can see that the label on the door does nothing for our understanding of who’s inside.


[ Heightened Sense Perception ]

Deep psychological attractors such as addiction, depression and anxiety disorders stabilise for a reason – and it’s not because they make things easier. They stabilise because the interactions that forge them involve strong emotions that call for cognitive compensations that end up making things worse.

[ Critical Self-Evaluation ]

Depression, for example, involves a sense of loss and rejection that calls up ruminative thoughts, evaluative thoughts, whose very character tends to be self-deprecating. The more we examine ourselves, the more fault we see; and so the rejection, sadness and anxiety that go with it are amplified.

[ Environmental Detection ]

Anxiety, meanwhile, draws attention to threat. That is its direct evolutionary purpose. Thus anxiety disorders demonstrate one of the simplest and most brutal feedback cycles awaiting adolescents growing up in uncertain environments. The more anxiety, the more attention to what could go wrong, to the dangers implicit in the environment, and the risks behind every possibility. In turn, this kind of thinking thrums the strings of anxiety, creating a full-throated chorus of concern completely unwarranted by a more objective interpretation of events.


[ Breaking The Cycle ]

Habits – most notably neuropsychological habits – develop through repetition, not merit, rationality, value or success. What we think and feel one moment determines what we think and feel the next moment.

Thankfully, most people pass through their depressions, conquer their fears, and come to terms with their traumas, though the blend of effort, circumstance, skill and luck required for happy endings is in no way easy to formulate.

With respect to addiction, the news is generally good. With all substances, including heroin, methamphetamine and alcohol, most addicts recover. Depending on the researchers’ claims, methods and definitions, proportions vary roughly from 50 per cent to 90 per cent.

[ Boredom as Immunity ]

The latency to quit or to achieve controlled use varies with the substance, the person and the culture. But experts increasingly agree that development itself drives recovery. There is something about growing older, or growing up, that makes the addiction less compelling, less attractive, while one’s perspective on one’s life and one’s future continues to evolve. While repetition drives habit-formation, it also promotes boredom, frustration and despair, and these negative emotions impel us to keep on trying something we might have failed at many times before.


Not every addict grows through and out of his or her addiction. Some remain enslaved for life, and some die. But the very stuckness of addiction, the redundancy and stupidity of chasing the same narrow goals each day, constitutes a worthy challenge for all that’s creative and optimistic in the human repertoire.


Ron Richey
545 Queen St.#701
Honolulu, Hi 96813

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