Neuroscientist and former drug addict Marc Lewis brings his life experience to Capilano
// Leah Scheitel

“Drugs are a great way into the brain. You get to understand the brain by seeing what drugs do to it,” said Dr. Marc Lewis during a talk at Capilano University on the evening Oct. 6. At the event, he discussed his new book, Memories of an Addicted Brain, which weaves Dr. Lewis’s personal memories as a former addict with his professional background as a neuroscientist. His lecture focused on how addiction affects the brain: what causes people to become addicts, why the urges and cravings are so strong, and what can be done about it.

Lewis’s experience with drugs, both medical and recreational, is vast. He started at the age of 16, when his parents sent him to boarding school in Boston from Toronto, his hometown. There, depressed and homesick, he started drinking, smoking pot, and ingesting cough syrup to get high. After boarding school, he went to California to attend Berkeley University. It was in California where he was introduced to harder drugs – LSD, heroin, and mescaline.

Lewis was addicted to a variety of substances for the better part of 15 years. While he was on an internship in Thunder Bay, Ontario, he was caught stealing drugs from the medical lab. He was kicked out of the University of Windsor, where he was studying to become a psychologist, and returned to Toronto, broke, dumped, and still addicted. He started at the bottom, washing windows and painting houses, and worked his way up to eventually return to university and earned his doctorate.

“Natural goodies like food and sex certainly follow the progression from liking to wanting,” he writes. “Feels good, and you want more.” He explains that dopamine, the brain’s “goodfeeling” chemical, is triggered during pleasurable stimuli such as food or sex. Certain drugs such as opioids cause a huge rush of dopamine into the brain, though with diminishing returns each time. This means that each time you take the drug, your body requires more of it to get the same feeling back; in other words, the beginnings of addiction.

His lecture focused on five points: an individual’s sensitivity to drug abuse, how addiction starts, “ego-fatigue” and the loss of self-control, defiance, and finally, the internal voices that cause an addict to relapse.

Sensitivity to drug abuse differs for every individual. Temperament and experience can cause kids to start experimenting with substances. Lewis explains, “Different kids have different chemical needs: the need for power, the need for control, the need for warmth and acceptance.” Opioids make the brain feel warm, safe, and happy, and if someone isn’t feeling this naturally, they may turn to drugs to find those sensations.

Addiction is caused by something that Dr. Lewis calls “corruptive learning.” When the brain learns something new, a multiple of synapses occur in the brain, causing a network to be formed. Addiction happens when the synaptic networks become cemented in the brain, and powered by neurochemicals in the drugs.” Then, he explains, “you learn that’s the thing you want, that’s the thing that you need, and you’ll do anything to get it.”

Ego-fatigue is a process by which the addicted person loses self-control, and their ability to resist desires and bad behaviours, something that Lewis spoke about in-depth during his lecture. “I’m not going to drink tonight, I am going to go home,” Lewis says is a typical the person might tell him or herself. However, at this stage, the person’s resolve will not hold, because, as Lewis says, “you lose the capacity to inhibit it.” Lewis points out that addicts are not weak people, contrary to popular belief. They are exhausting their egofatigue and self-control to the point where they just can’t say no.

Dr. Lewis says to make the loss of self-control justifiable, the addicted brain becomes defiant, believing that it can do whatever it wants. At this stage, the addict’s inner dialogue imposes selfinduced shame, which leads to further anger and rage. To ease these feelings of failure and low self-esteem, the addicted brain searches for more dopamine, and drugs. This perpetuates the cycle of addiction.

According to Lewis, this is the stage in which the addict must act most forcefully to resist the addiction. He says, “You must add new voices to the chorus of shame. Add the word no.” According to Lewis, the best word an addict can say is “no”. Saying no causes the brain to create a synaptic network with that action. The more it says no, the stronger that network becomes, and the easier it is to stay away from drugs.

“Addiction is really hard to understand,” Lewis told Canada A.M. during an interview on Oct. 05. “That’s why it’s important to talk about the brain processes that are going on and that make it so difficult to stop.”

// Leah Scheitel, Writer
// Graphic by Miles Chic

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