lizard brain and addiction

The Lizard Brain and Addiction

Dr. Norris Von Curl, II, MD

Dr. Norris Von Curl, II, MD

Being powerless. It’s not a very comfortable place to be. No one likes being under the full control of someone or something else—maybe it’s a chronic sickness, or an unjust outside perception of who we are, or maybe even imprisonment. No matter what we do or how we think in these circumstances, we have very little power to affect what is happening.

Where our behaviors are concerned, we actually each have an aspect of ourselves that moves and acts without our will or approval, as well. Behaviorists point to the part of our psyche and brain structure that regulates some of our base actions to help us understand this aspect of life. They call it the lizard brain. 

The Puppet Master

The lizard brain is an actual section of the brain stem (the amygdala) responsible for fear, rage, reproduction, emotions, emotional behavior, and motivation. It tells us to get safe, get comfortable, get pleasure over pain. And it is a very powerful force in our lives.

The lizard brain actually has more to do with our everyday actions than most of us realize. Marketing guru Seth Godin explores this idea deeply and uses it to help us understand our ability to make the most of our potential to create and influence the world.

The issue that Godin has, indeed many behaviorists, is when the lizard brain is allowed to control our lives. When this part of our brain gets control of our actions without being held in check. This is a problem because these base motivations to find pleasure or flee pain—they are not always best for us in the long haul. The lizard and its overbearing drives must be subdued.

Better Than Expected

This study from 2012 shows interesting data about drugs and dopamine. Dopamine is the reward system of the brain. Whenever something nice happens, you get a squirt of it (something the lizard brain really likes). However, according to the study, the amount of dopamine released is based on expectations.

The first time you ate a slice of pizza was a mind-blowing experience. You were not sure how it was going to taste. But once you had a bite, all the ingredients working together in a hot melted cheesy mess, and your brain gave you the pleasure chemical. It tasted way better than you thought, exceeding your expectations.

Maybe you had a similar experience the second time, but as life moved along, your expectations remained high, but the reality didn’t quite live up. So eating pizza, as good as it is, releases less dopamine than it once did. It’s fine. It means that when you get that extra amazing piece of pizza, you will be all the more happy with it. This is how our brain works with everything that gives us pleasure. The dopamine is measured out based on expectations. Except drugs.

The Loophole

Drugs mess with this system. “… Virtually all abused drugs—for instance, heroin and other opiates; cocaine, amphetamines and other psychostimulants; nicotine; and alcohol—operate by interfering with the reward circuitry,” the study says.

When you take drugs for the first time, your expectations are blown away. You get a ton of dopamine. But unlike the pizza, each time you get a fix, it’s almost like taking the drug for the first time. “… you’re getting a readout that says, ‘Wow, this was even better than I thought it would be.’ … It’s always better than you expected. Every single time.”

Even if the experience is not so great anymore, your brain responds as if it is the best thing ever. That’s not very fair, and it makes your lizard brain a pretty nasty beast. Basically, he knows he’s right. Every single time he chases that hit, it comes back better than expected.

When you are being controlled by your urges to find the easiest way or the immediate pleasure over long-term health you are being controlled by the lizard brain.

What Can You Do?

Acknowledge it. This is your most primitive brain. And it is doing what is natural. But it is not what is best for you. In fact, it has the potential to kill you.

Also, get a grip on your triggers. Triggers get that craving going, get that lizard brain moving in the direction toward easy, immediate dopamine. Learning how to identify and deal with addiction triggers is one of the most important skills a recovering addict can cultivate.

It is time to live the conscious life. The lizard brain makes us move without intention, just a pre-programmed reptilian behavioral response to external influences. It’s time to break free from his control and refuse to continue down a path that you know leads to destruction.

Don’t give up. Remember, recovery is possible. Even our loss of power can be the best thing that happens to us—a real freedom to find recovery.

No matter where you are on your journey, we are here to help. Please call if you need resources or advice or if you need to get help today: 844-489-0836.

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