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Elisha Goldstein, Ph.D. Headshot

The Neuroscience of Bad Habits: Dr. Nora Volkow

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Why are bad habits so hard to break? What if the bumper sticker "Just Say No!" actually works against us? Dr. Nora Volkow, head of the National Institute on Drug Abuse, may just have the answer.

If you have 10 minutes or so, watch the 60 Minutes video below to understand why habits are so hard to break and what is being done about it:

Volkow also was part of a 25-minute documentary on HBO around a range of issues related to addiction.

In the 60 Minutes video, Volkow tells us that if it were so easy to just say "no," then we wouldn't have drug addiction or obesity. There's something going on in the brains of addicts where they literally lose the ability for self-control.

Because of this Volkow calls the phrase "Just Say No!" "magical thinking."

The fact is, drugs affect learning, memory and self control. It's a chronic disease that physically changes the brain; these changes are long-lasting and persist over time even after the person stops taking the drugs.

To get more specific, dopamine is one of the main chemicals regulating the pleasure center of the brain. At the most basic level, it regulates motivation -- it sends signals to receptors in the brain saying, "This feels good!"

Whether you're a heroin addict and you see an association to heroin, you're a caffeine addict and you see a cup of coffee, or if you're hungry and you see some good-looking food, your brain rushes with dopamine and that is now caught on brain-scanning machines.

So what about the problem with obesity in our society? Volkow says that images also affect the rise of dopamine in our brains. So if we pass a McDonald's and see the arches, our brain associates that with a tasty hamburger (for some) and shoots up dopamine. That good feeling will unconsciously drive the motivation to go in and get a Big Mac. It's a conditioned response.

The big news that Volkow has found is that most addicts share a reduction in levels of dopamine receptors. This isn't just for the hard drugs; this includes people who regularly smoke marijuana and cigarettes. The brain isn't wired to handle these highs, and a shut-off valve kicks in and reduces the number of receptors available. So the ability of the drugs to stimulate pleasure continues to decrease. That is why eventually addicts no longer use to get high, but just to feel normal.

On top of that, drugs have been shown to damage the prefrontal cortex, this is the area that resides in the front of the brain, our executive function that allows us to exert free will. When this is damaged, it makes it more difficult to regulate emotions and self control.

It makes sense why more and more addiction centers are integrating mindfulness into their curriculum. Mindfulness practice has been shown to activate the prefrontal cortex and even grow the hippocampus, the area involved with learning and memory. It's also been shown to grow areas of the brain associated with empathy that might come in handy when addicts start to experience a sense of failure and shame when not being able to "Just Say No!"

Another reason mindfulness is helpful in terms of recovery is that it yields The Now Effect, that "aha" moment of clarity where we enter into a choice point, a moment where we access possibilities and opportunities we didn't know were there before. This is crucial when it comes to our addictive behaviors to take a step back, "think through the drink" and recognize the various options that lie before us.

We can learn to step into the pause, notice the sensation of the urge that's there and as the late Alan Marlatt, Ph.D. said, "surf the urge" as it peaks, crests and falls back down like a wave in the ocean.

Just because our brains have been altered by addiction, doesn't mean we're destined to fall into the same habits. With the right skills, community and support we can learn how to break out of routine and into a life worth living.

And at the end of the day, if we got addicted to mindfulness, would that be so bad?

As always, please share your thoughts, stories and questions below. Your interaction creates a living wisdom for us all to benefit from.

Adapted from Mindfulness and Psychotherapy.

For more by Elisha Goldstein, Ph.D., click here.

For more on addiction and recovery, click here.

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