Where Addiction Meets Your Brain

The Neurobiology of Addiction

Your Lizard Brain

The Limbic System and Brain Functioning

In 1954, the limbic cortex was described by neuroanatomists. Since that time, the limbic system of the brain has been implicated as the seat of emotion, addiction, mood, and lots of other mental and emotional processes. It is the part of the brain that is phylogenetic ally very primitive. Many people call it “The Lizard Brain” because the limbic system is about all a lizard has for brain function. It is in charge of fight, flight, feeding, fear, freezing-up, and fornication.

The limbic system is much more powerful than we humans credit it to be. While seeing a patient this morning, there was wonderment on the patient’s part about how she relapsed. She had been doing everything “right,” but she had some time on her hands and mysteriously found herself in the liquor store and subsequently drinking. I do not for a second think that she was trying to be deceptive about her amnestic trip into the store to buy vodka. After she drank, she called for help and got back into treatment, but she was still mystified at her behavior.

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What we know from a lot of research of the brain is that this type of unexplainable behavior happens all the time, and not just to addicts. It is just that addicts have more consequences for their actions in situations such as this. If one were to poll individuals about “unexplainable” behaviors, there would be a lot of stories if people would be honest. How many times have we done something that we said we would not do, eaten something that we said we would not eat, and said something that we said we would not say? We all know that it is a very extensive list and it happens every day.

The point to all of this is that 12-step recovery recognized (before the limbic system was described) that we all have this tendency to do what we don’t want to do and we are powerless about certain behaviors. Understanding this automatic behavior allows us to surrender to what we cannot control. It frees us to do the next right thing by staying in the present rather than worrying about the future or being shamed and experience guilt about the past. It takes practice. And more practice.

I always tell patients who are in recovery that if they feel like they are emotionally “in the groove” that it is likely they are in trouble. “The groove” is the comfortable place in your limbic brain that gets you into trouble. It is ok to experience the emptiness of life, the pain of the moment, and the discomfort of relationships. There is no need to anesthetize the discomfort. Working through it is the only path to growth and sobriety.

Joseph Troncale, M.D. FASAM, has been working in addiction medicine for 20 years. He is the Medical Director of the Retreat.
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