Isn’t it time we start telling the truth about addiction?
What is that truth? That we are all addicts and all the time.
For this to make sense, it helps to first understand that our ideas about addiction are built atop a deeper fallacy—the idea of normalcy—the notion that there is an unadulterated state of consciousness, a “normal” state where our interpretation of reality is accurate.
There are a number of huge problems with this idea. First, we know that ‘consciousness’ is a vast reduction in information. No one is exactly sure how vast. Estimates for how much information the senses gather on a moment–to-moment basis range from 11 million bits all the way up to 400 billion bits. This is a huge amount of data. Yet estimates for how much of this information actually makes it to our conscious mind ranges from 140 bits per second to around 2000 bits per second (for way more info on this check out Tor Norretranders’ amazing The User Illusion).
Whatever the actual number, the important point is that the reduction is massive. While we may think we live in the real world, what we’re calling reality is actually less than one percent of the information that’s out there.
The next problem with normalcy comes out of the so-called “special needs” world. The old idea is that sufferers of diseases like ADHD, Asperger’s and Autism were not normal. But I know plenty of folks in Silicon Valley who love the fact that they “suffer” from Asperger’s—meaning they’re more than willing to accept a difficulty in processing social cues for the boost in analytic and math skills that comes with the condition. To them, it’s a superpower, not a handicap.
Similarly, I know dozens of seriously ADHD professional athletes who believe they owe their careers to the “disease”—arguing that the only time they can focus is in a game (or on a mountain or whatever) and what others see as a condition to be cured, they see as a doorway into another universe—a universe where the impossible becomes possible.
Finally, the most obvious problem with normalcy is the simple fact that it’s a total fiction. In the world of addiction, normal means not on drugs, not chemically-altered. But we are—all of us and all the time—chemically altered.
Food alters our neurochemistry. Powerful emotions alter our neurochemistry. The chemicals in the air we breath (and the quality and style of our breathing) alters our neurochemistry. From a biological perspective, there is no such thing as not chemically altered. There is no baseline. There is no normal.
And not only is there no such thing as normal, the flipside of this coin is the fact that there’s no such thing as an un-addicted person. There are no non-addicts in the world for the simple reason that the brain functions by addiction.
Take, for example, habits. As Charles Duhigg taught us in The Power of Habit, there is a cycle of neurobiology beneath habit acquisition (cue, routine, reward) and the final stop on that cycle—the reward—comes from the nucleus accumbens releasing dopamine, the brain’s principle reward drug. This reinforcement locks habits into place. This cycle is how we learn.
But dopamine is the same neurochemical that makes amphetamines, morphine, nicotine, cocaine, shopping, porn, sex, gambling, eating, internet use, video games, falling in love and a host of other “addictions” addictive.
And this brings us to an important downstream corollary of the truth: Since addiction is unavoidable, what we need to do is start teaching people—and arguably this should start in grade school, with our children—how to manage their addictions.
In fact, at the Flow Genome Project, this is a large portion of what we do. The reason for this is that there is a recovery period that follows a flow state—and it’s not entirely pleasant. People go from the enormous high of flow (considered the most addictive feeling on earth) to a crashing low that follows. This low results from the fact that the brain has temporarily used up its supply of feel-good neurochemistry and it takes a little while for these chemicals to replenish themselves. It is unavoidable.
How you deal with this “recovery period” matters a great deal. If you go into it like an addict—craving more flow and right away—you’re not going to be able to recover enough to actually get the flow you desire. It’s a double-edged sword. Instead, it’s critical to know how to deal with the slew of negative emotions and negative thoughts that comes with that low. This is an addiction management problem.
Solving it means knowing how to hold your mud. It’s requires grit and emotional control and the ability to delay gratification. And it’s not easy.
For sure, the massive amplification in performance that flow brings is reason alone to start teaching people these addiction management skills—but modern technology turns what is already a good idea into something of a moral imperative.
The Swiss futurist Gerd Leonhard uses the phrase “digital obesity” to describe our current screen addiction—the fact that we are totally hooked on communication technology and have very little ability to deal with this addiction. Don’t believe me? Spend ten minutes talking to a teenager and count the times they interrupt the conversation to check their phone.
The issue here is big. The link between our desire for instant gratification and the Internet’s ability to deliver is pretty unbeatable. Sure, we can take “screen vacations” from time to time, but basic biology says we’re never going to be able to triumph over this “addiction.” It’s too fundamental and too omnipresent.
But, if we were honest about all these things, we could start teaching ourselves and our children how to manage these issues from the get-go. Addiction is a fact of life. We treat it as a disease—and, for all the damage it does, rightly so—but it’s actually just normal brain function. Which is to say, here in the 21st century, addiction management is a fundamental survival skill.
If we’re bringing children into a hyper-connected digital world, don’t we owe them the skills it takes to navigate this world?
[Image credit: Camilo Rueda López/flickr]