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Addiction, the Brain, and Hypnosis

Addictions are serious chronic brain diseases, which have biological, psychological, and social implications. They are powerful because they employ neurological processes required for learning and survival. However, they use these vital systems in a way that threatens the addict’s health, relationships, and may often end in criminal prosecution and jail time. So, to understand and treat this problem both the patient and the counselor must know how abuse is encoded, triggered, and reinforced.

Our brain participates in a two-level learning system. Generally, learning can be divided into short-term and long-term with each using very different and distinct parts of the brain – and one critical part that both share. The ability to have short-term memory involves perception being predominantly stored in the area called the hippocampus, which specializes in briefly recording what is detected by one’s senses. This then tends to synapse xt trigger a reaction in the nearby amygdala, which is the brain’s emotional center. The resulting reaction varies depending on whether the perception is deemed to cause pleasure or fear. Of course, I would assume that addictive behavior is more related to a pleasurable response. This acts as a reward system, which is critical to our ability to encode and reinforce the proper reaction to a perception of safety or threat.

Short-term memories are eventually stored in other areas of the brain as long-term memories. When this happens, new memories are integrated with other previously attained ones, thus providing opportunities for retriggering the previously experienced positive or negative responses. For instance, once you have enjoyed your favorite dessert – during which your reaction to the taste was associated with a particular smell – the next time you smell the same aroma the original short-term reaction will again be relived. This means that again the amygdala will trigger the emotional centers of our brain to react. It appears that triggering the amygdala is associated with both short-term and long-term memories.

Taking this a few steps further, in order to understand the relationship between addiction and the brain you must realize that repeated behavior will alter how the brain functions and is structured. This means that either due to the dramatic effect of the behavior or the ingestion of a substance, repeated use will cause the associated networks of brain cells to multiply. This means that their ability to replay the reward response in the future will grow stronger and stronger. (This is true even should the brain create a tolerance to the behavior or substance. Thus, even though more of the addictive substance or stimulus will be required, essentially the brain’s capability, which has developed a certain level of genius, will always be there.) This increasing competency due to intensity and repetition is the fundamental reason why understanding the brain and addiction in important.

Addiction is a growing problem in our culture. When we focus on addiction, we normally think of a celebrity who has just entered rehab because of prescription drug abuse. However, more and more we learn of others – both celebrities and non-celebrities – who have admitted that they are addicted to alcohol. This is a major problem. In fact, about 18.7 million people, which is about 7.7% of the US population, are dependent upon or use alcohol. So, just like situations in which people are addicted to drugs, many are finding alcohol addictive. Of course, I can add to this many other addictive behaviors, such as gambling, porn, as well.