Free Will and Addiction
The recent tragic death of Philip Seymour Hoffman to a drug overdose has sparked quite a bit of controversy regarding free will and addiction. Hoffman put the syringe in his arm and overdosed on heroin, despite years of recovery and sobriety. Many say he had a choice, and many say he did not.
This leads us to ponder the following: “Do any of us have free will when it comes to addictive substances, or do they have the power to enslave us?” Should addicts be punished? Pitied? Rescued? Only science, and the actual workings of addiction, can truly answer these questions.
Addictive substances all hyper-stimulate the dopaminergic (reward) system of the brain, eventually resulting in neural damage.1 It’s a fact. The brain’s reward system is made up of clusters of neurons that release the neurotransmitter dopamine.1 When we find an activity pleasurable, this circuit is activated, and we feel reward.1 This system also enables us to remember the circumstances that led us to feeling pleasure, allowing us to repeat the behavior and again experience the pleasure it brought us.1 Our brain’s reward circuit is vital to our ability to learn, and motivates us to get out of bed in the morning to begin another day, hopefully filled with pleasure.1
Addiction is the hijacking of our reward circuit, robbing us of our free will.1 Duke University professors of pharmacology, Wilkie Wilson and Cynthia Kuhn summarize addiction:
So addiction is far more than seeking pleasure by choice. Nor is it just the willingness to avoid withdrawal symptoms. It is a hijacking of the brain circuitry that controls behavior so that the addict’s behavior is fully directed to drug seeking and use. With repeated drug use, the reward system of the brain becomes subservient to the need for the drug.1
There are scientific reasons behind the hijacking.1 First, some substances put the brain’s reward system into overdrive, releasing dopamine and other neurotransmitters at levels that are several times higher than the brain is designed to handle.1 Second, some people are particularly sensitive to the effects of these substances, causing them to become enslaved to them in ways that many have a difficult time understanding.1 Third, as the brain attempts to correct itself, it becomes acutely tuned to environmental stimuli, which leads it to feed the addiction instead of correcting it.1
For example: rats. When electrodes are implanted into the reward circuitry of their brains, stimulated by pressing on a bar in his cage, the rat will do so repeatedly for days and days.1 The rat will forget to eat, sleep, drink, mate.1 In fact, he will do nothing but press that bar repeatedly until he collapses in exhaustion.1 Eventually, he will exhaust himself to death, unless the experimenter intervenes and removes the rat from that environment.1 This is especially true if pressing the bar delivers a dose of an addictive substance.1
Therefore, if a person who uses addictive substances continues to overstimulate the reward circuit in their brain, the brain begins trying to fight back.1 It does so in two ways.1 The brain may react to the overstimulation by damaging or destroying dopamine receptors, adapting to the overwhelming surges.1 With the dopamine not exerting a great impact on the reward circuit any longer, the addict will not receive the same high from their usual dose.1 Therefore, they will increase the amount of substances they use.1 Eventually, the reward circuit burns out and the user receives absolutely no pleasure from the addictive substance.1 Instead, they feel like a shell of the person they once were, and need the substance to simply feel absolutely anything at all.1
Another way the brain fights back is through conditioning.1 It learns to compensate for the upcoming stress of the drug intake when the environmental cues associated with the use present itself.1 The brain will automatically produce a response that is the opposite of the drug’s effect.1 For example, if the drug lowers a person’s blood pressure and pain sensitivity, the brain will raise them.1 It is the brain’s way of trying to keep the body steady.1 The addict will try to overcome this effect by increasing the drug dose to achieve the same effect they used to achieve by using.1 However, if the addict uses an increased dose in an unfamiliar environment where those cues are not present, the brain does not trigger the opposite physical response in anticipation of the hit, leading to overdose.1 Contrary to the belief of many, when drug addicts overdose, they typically have not taken more than their usual dose.1 They simply used in an unfamiliar environment.1
Addiction overtakes a person’s free will. Once they begin using, their free will is gone. However, everyone is different. Some become addicted right away, and some do not. One never knows which user they are going to be. No one looks to become an addict—they look to have a one-time good time, which can lead them down the wrong path unexpectedly.