Friday, February 15, 2008

The Plastic Addictive Brain

I joined a new online book club started by a college sorority friend. The first book chosen by the club is The Brain That Changes Itself: Stories of Personal Triumph from the Frontiers of Brain Science (James H. Silberman Books) The book discusses brain plasticity, or the ability of the brain to change and adapt.

Part of my discomfort with my current self has been a general feeling of ennui, lack of motivation and wonder, and decreased desire to learn and seek out new experiences. Drive and curiosity were traits that defined the younger me, and I was worried that something had taken them away from me.

I was worried, going into this project, that any habits or addictions I have formed in my life would be impossible to break. When I was young my mother was both a smoker and a nail-biter. To cover her short nails, she began using press-on nails. Since she could not bite these off, she inadvertantly cured her nail biting habit. When one of the fake nails would fall off, she found that the real nail underneath was long and healthy and that she did not have the urge to put her fingers in her mouth. She now enjoys regular manicures and upon occasion can be heard bemoaning a broken nail.

The smoking, on the other hand, in not a habit but a powerful addiction joined to ritual and habit. As teenagers my brother and I would try to get our parents to stop smoking. Hiding the cigarettes, flushing them down the toilet, and even one year giving them the nicotine patch for Christmas. Our mother's response? "I am too old to change now. It's just who I am. "

Reading the book, and even seeing my mother disprove herself by breaking one of her two nasty habits, has given me confidence that this assertion of hers is not a forgone conclusion. My book club book shows countless examples of people who beat not only deeply set addictions, but the ability to change attitudes and perceptions and improve memory.

In the shadows of this newfound optimism is one dark note concerning addiction. Doidge mentions that there is a trigger in the brain that when switched on activates an addictive personality. Once on, it can never be turned off and the person is forevermore susceptible to addiction. Even furtive forays into addictive elements can be enough to flip this switch. Addiction is also a trait passed on genetically. It is my greatest concern that my addiction trigger has been activating, making the process of change that much more difficult. Time will tell!

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