Addiction and Spirituality

Addiction and Spirituality are linked together in several ways -- Addiction is often referred to as a "soul-sickness" due the conflict between addictive behavior and personal values. And, for most people, recovery from addiction requires a spiritual treatment such as a Twelve-Step program or the rapidly growing church-based Celebrate Recovery Program.

Networks of Addiction and Spirituality

The human brain has three layers: the outer layer is often referred to as the thinking brain (Cortical Structures); the middle layer is the emotional brain (Limbic System); and the inside layer is the visceral brain (Vital Functions).

Deep inside the feeling brain there is a small cluster of networked neurons called the nucleus accumbens. The nucleus accumbens is a critical part of a larger network called the reward pathway.

The reward pathway is responsible for regulating our neural networks for survival -- these three instinctive networks are referred to here as the "Eat", "Don't get Eaten", and "Reproduce" survival systems.

Our internal world, including the networks of addiction and spirituality, is accustomed to a certain biological balance or "steady-state". When the balance is upset, the appropriate survival system is activated to regain that bio-balance, also known as homeostasis. A neural network embedded within the reward pathway, the nucleus accumbens, plays a major role in turning on and off these instinctive survival systems.

In their book The Craving Brain, Ruden and Byalick explain that in the normal survival systems some "trigger" causes an increase in the neurochemical dopamine in the nucleus accumbens. This rise in dopamine "turns-on" the neural networks for hunger, anxiety, or longing which signals that a "need" has been identified. The increase in dopamine causes a sense of urgency to satisfy the need...so a rise in dopamine is the "on switch".

When the need is met (satiated) then there is an increase in the neurochemical serotonin. So they suggest a rise in serotonin levels is the "off switch" for the networks for hunger, anxiety, or longing -- the need disappears. When the need is not met, there is a decrease in serotonin with a continuing rise in dopamine levels in the nucleus accumbens causing the craving to grow stronger until we are compelled to meet the need. There is no "off switch" (rise in serotonin) until the need is satisfied. This is how these systems are supposed to work.

To summarize Ruden and Byalick's hypothesis about addiction, as the intense addictive behavior is repeated the neural network for it gets cross-wired directly into the reward pathway right alongside the normal survival systems of "Eat", "Don't Get Eaten", and "Reproduce".

However, this cross-wiring of neural circuits is abnormal -- the rise in dopamine "turns on the switch" for the addiction neural network, but there is no rise in serotonin meaning there is no "off switch" for the addiction network -- which explains the loss-of-control and the other signs of addiction. (Watch the video)

Ruden and Byalick go on to explain that any attempts to refrain from drinking, eating chocolate, gambling, browseing porn, etc. causes a further rise in dopamine levels AND a decrease in serotonin, which creates a craving that becomes so strong it must be satisfied -- in just the same way as these survival systems compelling us to satisfy our hunger or thrist by eating a piece of crusty, moldy bread or drinking dirty, stagnant water if that's all that is available at the time.

The Neural Networks of Temptation

Now, for a real mind-blower related to addiction and spirituality consider the spiritual implications of the above section! Most followers of Christianity are aware of a list of attitudes and behaviors commonly referred to as the Seven Deadly Sins: Wrath, Greed, Sloth, Pride, Lust, Envy, and Gluttony. These were identified in early Christian times as the most deadly sins of all -- but always in terms of morally wrong, or mortal sins. In the same circles, judging others is also spiritually dangerous!

There is a belief that the word "sin" derives from an old archery term meaning to "miss the mark". It didn't matter how far outside the target one was; just missing it was falling short of the mark, placing one in need of forgiveness. Learn why the Seven Deadly Sins are so deadly and how they are also connected to addiction and spirituality - the answers might surprise you!