Thursday, March 10, 2005

ADD: Addicted to Information

I'm an addict. I love reading.

Sometimes, though, it is not often simply a joy. There is a drive to the consumption of letters that causes me to read on. If I have visited all my daily haunts, there is a moment where I wonder "Bummer, what else can I read now?" I am not sated. My thirst is not slaked. I am thirsty for even more new information - and hence I have become a serious news junky. The web simply cannot publish enough news about computers or politics. And yet there is so much other material I'd like to read. So much I'd like to learn that I'm not learning. Why aren't I driven to study Spanish or Japanese? Why aren't I driven to read more productive tutorials online? Why aren't I driven to sit at my desk and draw and create new works at a similar frenetic rate? As I continue to take charge of my life away from my disabilities these are the types of questions I demand answers for.

My wife came home last week all excited about an article she had read in Psychology Today. It was mostly focused on addiction, and more specifically drug addiction. However, the article detailed the new discoveries being made about our minds and how dopamine is not simply a pleasure chemical but a "Hey! Pay attention to this!" chemical. Dopamine is responsible for sparking the attention of the mind, or filling our lives with the thrill of new experiences. This makes dopamine, or the lack of it, critical to the person with ADD. Stimulants - the usual treatment for ADD - tend to boost dopamine levels, thus allowing the person under their influence to pay attention better. This is because people with ADD tend to have fewer dopamine D2 receptors in their brain than what is considered normal. Interestingly, not all individuals enjoy the dopamine boost that drugs, or other intense activities associated with addictions, give them. What this article details is that people who resist addictions tend to have a higher amount of dopamine D2 receptors.

Not surprisingly, addiction has domino affects in the brain. Consider this from the article:

With fewer receptors, the dopamine system is desensitized (due to the flooding of dopamine caused by drug usage), and the now-understimulated addict needs more and more of the drug to feel anything at all. Meanwhile, pathways associated with other interesting stimuli are left idle and lose strength. The prefrontal cortex--the part of the brain associated with judgment and inhibitory control--also stops functioning normally.

Isn't that sweet... The addict's behavior, driven not by the need for pleasure as much as the need for the rush of dopamine caused by new and intense experiences, hurts his own mind and makes himself over time less able to resist his own destructive behavior. It truly is a fascinating article and I highly recommend you read it.

How this relates to me is that I tend to stave off depression by reading a lot. So the reading is a form of medication. My wife's interpretation was, "Douglas, you're addicted to information!" Does this mean that my mind is irreparably broken - that I have fixed it with a behavior that has locked itself into a destructive (to time and productivity) loop? I suppose one could relax with the knowledge that one is born this way and that the addiction is not one's fault. However, I have never felt comfortable with such sentiments. In fact, just typing that much made my brain itch. I have always wondered, instead, if my brain could be retrained to think differently. I do not want to accept myself as "born this way". I like to believe that I can exert a change upon myself for my benefit.

Assuming the psychologist, Nora Volkow, is on to something, this could mean that I have a better understanding of one of my weaknesses. I have always wanted to train myself to crave drawing the way I crave reading. If I think of it in terms of dopamine rush, and a wilted prefrontal cortex, I might be able to come up with exercises that help me shift the drive from reading to drawing. Or writing my novel. Or studying a second language, etc. My goals haven't changed with this new knowledge, but my approach might be more informed. It's worth pondering at the very least.