Better than Dope

Craving for Ecstasy and Natural Highs

Better than Dope: Natural Highs the Cutting Edge of Mood Alteration

Orchestrating the brain's natural ability to induce pleasure.

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Look to this day!
For it is life, the very life of life
For yesterday is but a dream
And tomorrow is only a vision
But today well lived makes
every yesterday a dream of happiness
And tomorrow a vision of hope.
Look well, therefore, to this day!
Such is the salutation of the dawn.
  - Kalidasa, 3rd Century AD
       Sanskrit poem

 

 

"The most pleasure that life has to offer is an adequate flow of dopamine into the nucleus accumbens."
       - Stanley Sunderwirth

In the 1950's, animal studies by Olds and Milner showed that electrical stimulation to a rat's pleasure center was more reinforcing than food, sex or the avoidance of electrical shock. The widespread and wanton abuse of methamphetamine, driven by gargantuan jolts of dopamine to the brain's nucleus accumbens, has accentuated this finding in spades. In 1974 Hughes and Kosterlitz discovered internal morphine (endorphin) in a camel's pituitary gland. This proved that the brain produces its own internal opiates and suddenly the genie flew out of the bottle. By unveiling two key drivers of human pleasure - dopamine and endorphin - the stage was set for a deeper understanding of craving and addiction.

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In October 1983 Stanley Sunderwirth and I published "The Chemistry of Craving," our treatise on how behavioral addiction to sex, gambling, risk-taking and a host of other pleasure-inducing activities can trigger drug-like reactions in our own brains, similar to the neurochemical changes brought about by stimulants, narcotics, depressants and hallucinogens. We posited that people do not become addicted to drugs, but rather to "self-induced changes in neurotransmission that result in problem behaviors...[and that] in the drama of addiction, experience is the protagonist, drugs and activities are merely the supporting actors." A recent case in point: Michael Jackson's problems in living were far more complex than mere addiction to any prescription drug or fixation on adolescent boys. His life was marked by an insatiable drive for showmanship, creativity, thrill seeking, and novelty, which became the focus for his genius and the bane of his existence.

Our hypothesis ignited a host of theoretical and clinical formulations on the biochemical underpinnings of addiction and the treatment indicated for various compulsive pleasure seeking activities, most notably Patrick Carnes' work on addiction to sex. We now know that there is a neurochemical analogue for each mind-altering substance that wreaks havoc on the ideals of sanity, well-being and human productivity. Given that the brain is a giant pharmaceutical factory that manufactures its own mind-altering chemicals, a fundamental question for the 21st century is: "How can we orchestrate the brain's natural capacity to induce pleasure to the betterment of the individual and welfare of society?"

The aim of this blog is to examine the positive and negative sides of pleasure. We view addiction as a syndrome of related disorders sharing common biological, psychological and social causes with similar life-course trajectories. Readers are invited to weigh-in on all sides of the ensuing debate. Is there ethical and medical justification for the use of "neuroenhancing" drugs by "normal" people? Does the achievement of lasting happiness and fulfillment include moderation in the use of mind-altering drugs? What are the benefits and liabilities of more widespread and legal access to marijuana? How can we avoid the pitfalls of overindulgence in such powerfully rewarding behaviors as eating, risk-taking and sexual activity? What are healthy means to achieve enduring pleasure and well-being? How can cognitive-restructuring, mindfulness, and positive psychology be used to improve happiness and fulfillment?

Finally, it is a great delight - a "natural high" - to orchestrate this forum on humankind's eternal quest to seek pleasure and avoid pain.

 

 

 

Dr. Harvey Milkman is professor of psychology at Metropolitan State College of Denver specializing in cognitive-behavioral approaches to mood alteration.

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