Bioethics Blogs

Guest Post: Must we throw out the brain with the bathwater? Marc Lewis on addiction

Written by Anke Snoek

Macquarie University

When neuroscience started to mingle into the debate on addiction and self-control, people aimed to use these insights to cause a paradigm shift in how we judge people struggling with addictions. People with addictions are not morally despicable or weak-willed, they end up addicted because drugs influence the brain in a certain way. Anyone with a brain can become addicted, regardless their morals. The hope was that this realisation would reduce the stigma that surrounds addiction. Unfortunately, the hoped for paradigm shift didn’t really happen, because most people interpreted this message as: people with addictions have deviant brains, and this view provides a reason to stigmatise them in a different way.

In his recent book, Addiction and the biology of desire, Marc Lewis made an impressive attempt to show that behind every addiction is a normal person. His book is a hopeful story, but perhaps too hopeful. He describes a few recovery success stories, but what about the chronic cases? Some have accused him of glorifying and describing addicted persons as heroes.   (https://www.washingtonpost.com/opinions/choosing-to-stop-your-addiction/2015/08/20/1097a25e-36f8-11e5-9739-170df8af8eb9_story.html). However, an accusation as strong as this fails to see the authentic stand Lewis takes: he treats addiction as a developmental problem, and this results in a very plausible story of how one can become addicted and how one can recover.

But let’s start at the beginning. Neuroscience is not the robust science most people take it for. Although our understanding of the brain has grown exponentially in the last decade, it is still quite difficult to translate certain brain mechanisms into human behaviour.

The views, opinions and positions expressed by these authors and blogs are theirs and do not necessarily represent that of the Bioethics Research Library and Kennedy Institute of Ethics or Georgetown University.