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Addicts Don't Have a Monopoly on Craving, Say the Buddhists

If craving is at the core of human nature, then what's special about addiction?

According to the Buddhists, craving is the one thing that keeps us mired in our attachments. It's both the key to human suffering and it's perfectly normal. So where does that leave us in trying to understand addiction? Do addicts experience some exaggerated form of craving, or have they just found a unique resolution to a fundamental human problem?

The cycle of human attachment is represented in Buddhism by a wheel that keeps on turning. First comes emptiness or loss, then we see something attractive outside ourselves that promises to fill that emptiness, then we crave. Craving is seen as a universal form of anxiety, focused on a specific goal. So we crave and crave, and then we grasp -- we reach for it. That voluntary endorsement of one's attachments -- that's what keeps the wheel spinning. Grasping of course leads to getting. Getting reinforces the attachment, and that leads to more emptiness and loss, because the thing we're attached to is never enough to fill the void. And round and round we go.

The parallels with addiction are obvious. We crave, grasp, get, and then run out of the thing we're addicted to. And then we crave it all the more. I guess the only thing that's special about addiction is that we keep grasping for the same thing again and again. There are good neural reasons for that -- reasons Buddhism may not have grasped at its inception a couple of thousand years ago. Each cycle of craving, grasping, and loss leaves its trace on the synaptic architecture of our brain. "What fires together wires together," and so the goal gets more important and more attractive with each spin of the wheel.

As far as I know, Buddhist common sense recommends breaking the cycle between craving and grasping. Is it possible to remain in a state of craving without grasping? Yes, but it's difficult.

Kuhn, Gevers, and Brass (2009, Journal of Neurophysiology) measured electrical activity in the area of the dorsal anterior cingulate cortex (the dACC: the region responsible for effortful self-control), using event-related potentials. On most trials, the participants were instructed to press one or two buttons in response to a pattern on the screen (called the "instructed Go" condition). But on some trials they were told not press the button (to withhold the action, called "instructed NoGo"). And on other trials, they were free to press or not press, according to their own whims (called "free Go" and "free NoGo"). Given this design, the researchers were able to compare the level of brain activity (used for effortful control) between instructed actions and instructed non-actions, that is, between making yourself do something and making yourself not do something.

Instructed non-actions ("instructed NoGo's") are exactly what we face when we tell ourselves NOT to grasp, not to go for another drink, another bite, another pill, another cigarette, or whatever. When you hold in mind the "instruction" not to do something, and you successfully obey it, then you've broken the cycle -- at least for now. A lot like craving without grasping.

Above, you see voltage values for different brain regions in each of the four conditions. Both the P2 and N2, considered measures of attraction and self-control, show the maximum voltage (blue color) in the "instructed NoGo" condition, not the "instructed Go" condition or either of the "free" conditions. So your brain, and specifically your dACC, is working hardest, not when it's trying to do something but when it's trying not to do something. In Buddhist terms, it's a lot easier to grasp than to refrain from grasping.

So here's an instance where neuroscience and Buddhism tell us complementary aspects of the same story. Neuroscience tells us how hard it is to intentionally refrain from something you're about to do. Buddhism tells us: Yes, it's hard, but do it anyway...if you want to break the cycle of craving and attachment. That makes sense to me. If you can let yourself crave without grasping, even a few times, then you start to break down that automatic progression -- that compelling momentum -- that keeps the wheel going round and round. Then, after a while, craving itself begins to diminish, because it's got nowhere to go.

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