Re: drug addiction as meme

From: Keith Henson (
Date: Sun 25 Jan 2004 - 20:31:28 GMT

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    At 09:08 AM 25/01/04 -0500, you wrote:
    >I'm off for a week to attend a judicial conference on setting up special
    >drug courts that focus on treatment instead of incarceration.
    >My question is for the lot of you is: if drug addiction is a meme, are
    >there any insights that a memetic perspective can suggest on how to limit
    >it's spread? A related question: how is this complicated by the
    >involuntary nature of addiction itself?
    >Raymond O. Recchia, Esq.

    I don't state the problem the way you do, but this is the subject of my
    "Sex, Drugs and Cults" article published August of 2002. (and linked all over the net).

    If you think about it, there is no way that susceptibility to drug addiction would evolve by itself --being strung out on plant sap is hardly conducive to reproductive success!

    So, it must be a side effect (byproduct, spandrel) of something else. To cut to the chase, the root cause is the brain reward mechanisms that have evolved to shape behavior in social primates in ways that--in our tribal past--led to improved reproductive success (most of the time). I.e., drug rewards short circuit the brain's release of endorphins (and other neurochemicals) into the brain's reward circuits.

    Normal endorphin release is caused by social attention resulting from actions such as killing an animal large enough to feed the whole tribe. This action, attention, release-reward (AAR) mechanism serves us to this day, motivating any extraordinary actions (like those leading to a Nobel prize.) Any of you who have been totally buzzed after giving a public speech know the effect first hand.

    Drugs get in downstream of the attention, requiring only seeking and injecting/smoking/ ingesting drugs to get the reward. And you are completely right on addiction taking over the person's behavior and becoming effectively involuntary. Same thing happens due to internal chemicals to compulsive gamblers and people hooked on attention rewards in a cult.

    Of course drug addiction is *also a meme* in that people learn drug taking behavior from others. Even learning that drugs exist slightly increases the risk young people will try and find they like drugs. See and related places where government officials rejected their own study of the D.A.R.E. program when it was found to be useless. (Itself an interesting "religious" we-have-faith-in-this-$750-million-program-regardless-of-the-results.)

    Alas, I don't have ideas of how to keep children from being exposed to the fact drugs exist that are compatible with free speech. Maybe teaching about the reward mechanisms would help, but by analogy, understanding metabolism makes little difference in overeating. I don't know if teaching about sex has a lot of effect either. (Can someone point me to a study?)

    As for what could be done, getting people to withdraw from drugs is only a small part of the solution. People *need* a certain amount of rewards and if the don't get it from attention, it makes sense to get it some other way. A high fraction of the drug using population does use rewarding drugs in controlled moderation (chipping).

    But any drug use is dangerous to *some* people, leading to uncontrolled use/abuse. There are external limits to the amount of attention you can get from dragging back large dead animals and fewer limits on the amount of drugs you can use, not even considering the problem of building up tolerance if you use drugs too often.

    If you are going to get abusers off drugs long term, the drug reward need to be replaced by attention-releasing-endorphin rewards from those around them, preferably because they are doing something that gains them deserved attention. Unfortunately rewards that were easier to get in a tribe are much more difficult a mass media world where a very few get an overload of attention and virtually all aspiring athletes, actors, singers, writers and the like get none.

    Keith Henson

    PS. The AAR mechanism explains the relative success of 12 step programs
    (AA and the like). The actual *content* of the programs is not as important as the rewards people in them get from being at least momentarily the center of attention. ("My name is ____and I am an alcoholic.")

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