The Science of Addiction


Habits and routines are easy to identify, but difficult to change. Addictions are similar, except they’re more difficult to identify and even harder to overcome. But there’s a science to addiction, and this knowledge is instrumental to starting on the right foot.

I’m going to keep these explanations rather simple. At the most basic level, there are two main kinds of addiction: physical and psychological. The physical addictions are things like drugs, the kinds of things that can literally kill you if you overdose on them.

This includes not only hard drugs and alcohol, but more benign things like coffee as well. At more advanced levels of addiction, a certain time without these substances can cause physical symptoms, in some cases even death.

The psychological addictions are the things that we become conditioned to think we need. Some of these things are designed to get you hooked by their very nature.

Both physical and psychological addictions rely on the same principle:

Diminishing Returns

If you’re a coffee drinker, you already know what I’m talking about. When you first started drinking coffee, maybe it actually affected you, even got you a bit wired. Maybe you didn’t drink it again for a while, but after a time, you started drinking more and more. One cup of coffee used to get you through the workday, until one day it wasn’t enough and now you need another cup around lunch.

So what’s happening here? Well, whenever you have a cup of coffee, your brain reacts to the caffeine. When you begin to regularly intake caffeine, your brain learns to expect this input, and it prepares itself to compensate for the unnatural change that’s about to occur. Your brain develops a tolerance to the effects of caffeine, and you’ll begin to need more and more coffee to get the same effect you used to. If you try to quit drinking coffee without weaning yourself off of it, your brain—which is expecting caffeine—compensates for the input like normal, but after a time of not receiving caffeine, it begins to hurt instead. I’m sure there’s a more scientific explanation for this but it’s not pertinent to the point I’m trying to make here.

Video games are a unique psychological addiction because many of them are designed with addiction in mind. This is especially true of online games with monthly subscriptions. In World of Warcraft, for instance, the first few level-ups come easy. You can gain about ten levels within the first hour of play. After that, progress slows considerably. What used to take you a couple quests now takes you ten or twenty. But each time you get a level up, you feel a rush. This is because of the way a level-up triggers your dopamine receptors, which makes you feel happy. As you level up, you get a hit of dopamine, and you keep playing to get that same feeling again.

It would be incredibly irresponsible of me if I did not mention this at least briefly: There are more serious addictions than video games and coffee, of course. In my area, there is a growing opioid epidemic, which has been widely attributed to post-op surgery patients getting hooked on their prescription pain medication. There are resources which can wean you off of these medications, but they are largely unused in my area. This has led to more and more heroin overdoses which have only gotten worse with the addition of much more dangerous chemicals intended to create a stronger high. This is even more dangerous for people who are in recovery from addiction and relapse thinking they can handle the same amount of a drug they could handle before, which usually results in death. If you or someone you know are struggling with such an addiction, seek assistance, even if that just means reaching out to a friend.

In a way, all addictions are psychological. It’s just that the physical addictions actually introduce chemicals to the brain which get the user hooked, whereas solely psychological addictions rely on dopamine, a chemical already stored in your body.

Knowledge is Power!

Okay, yes Cersei, I get it. Power is power. But in this case, we don’t have a cadre of armed guards to quell our cravings.

Knowing how our habits and addictions affect us arms us with all we need to fight them. I may be oversimplifying the struggle, but a little introspection goes a long way.

Let’s go back to a time when I tried to quit gaming. I’d gotten wrapped up in a game called Xenoblade Chronicles X. My obsession with it was similar to what occurred more recently with Breath of the Wild, because it was such an open-world game that begged to be explored. Plus, giant mecha are a weakness of mine.

And the diminishing returns with this game were compounded by the fact that you had to be obsessive to really follow the game. Some missions would require you to find obscure items and monsters with little direction. Luckily the game had a pretty huge Wiki, but even that wasn’t enough to account for the time you had to put in to make money, collect items, upgrade your items, find quests, and do a whole bunch of other stuff.

I knew I had to quit the game. To date I’ve logged nearly 200 hours in it, and I still haven’t gotten close to unlocking everything in the game. It’s just not made to be completed easily.

So, one day, I popped the disk out and put it back in its case and onto the shelf. It was a simple action, but a profound one at the time. I decided to swear off games for a while.

The first day was easy. The second day and every day after that was infinitely more difficult.

But here’s the thing: Every day, the struggle remained the same. It wasn’t harder because I had the day off, and it wasn’t easier because I spent the day at work. Every day, I wanted to play the game (and a number of other games, as well) and I kept thinking of unfinished goals in the game.

I knew of the slippery slope I’d end up falling down if I were to load it up even just to tie up one loose end. I had to tell myself no.

We Can Use this to Our Advantage

There’s a solid idea behind boot camp. The first half is there to break you, and the second half is there to make you.

Even when I briefly quit gaming, the urge eventually went away. Even when I started playing again, I didn’t care to keep playing as much. I didn’t obsess like I used to. The controller didn’t run out of battery power due to long play sessions anymore. The truth is, even though the struggle was still there, after a time, the urge moved from being a craving at the front of my mind, to a nudge at the back of my mind.

It’s at this point that we can add new habits to our routine.

Except, that’s a lie. This is not what you need in order to change your routine. You can change it at any point, but once you feel like your cravings have desisted, you’ll know firsthand that you have power, that you are in control of your success and failure.

But building a productive habit is more difficult than building up a self-destructive one. For one thing, you have to make yourself do it; it doesn’t just happen by accident.

As we transition from breaking habits to building them this Maypril season, see if you can overpower the negative forces driving you to succumb to your addictions. Of course, don’t expect it to be easy. Just remember that you’re in control.


About David Shank

David T. Shank is a writer, runner, and musician, in that order. His blog is hopefully an oasis among the vast ocean of negativity that is the Internet. He lives in Cleveland studying how to write good.

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