What is neurobiology?
Neurobiology is a field of scientific study centering on the physiology of the nervous system. Neurobiology is defined as the study of the tissue and cells comprising the nervous system.
The brain, spine and nerves are all part of the nervous system, including what are sometimes called neural pathways or circuits. Nerves extend and operate throughout the body, and are responsible for communicating with the brain and other parts of our anatomy.
Neurobiology explores how the brain and nervous system work. Nervous system and brain functions and their structures are studied for further insight into the ways that we operate at a molecular and biological level. Neurobiology is related both to the study of physiology and to the field of neuroscience.
The neurobiology of addiction
At the body level, everything we experience is perceived courtesy of our nervous system. When we notice events in our external environment, it is our nerves that deliver the raw data comprising these observations to our brains. It is also through the brain and nervous system that we create an inner picture of that external environmental stimulus.
The brain furthermore decides how we should respond to the presence of the stimulus, and activates the body to appropriately deal with the stimulus. Whether we react to something in the environment with a smile and a feeling of warmth and happiness or by tensing up our shoulders and feeling a jolt of anxiety is all decided and created in the body in a matter of microseconds through the nervous system communicating with the brain.
Substance use disorders are associated with apparent changes in pathways of operation in the brain and nervous system. Repeated use of drugs and alcohol changes the operations of the brain and nervous system significantly, and in the case of brain damage, does so permanently.
Addiction is believed to make alterations in the brain and nervous system specifically connected to pleasure, by accessing our internal reward system. Addiction also interacts with brain and nervous system pathways relating to self-control, stress, decision making, and learning.
The key changes noted with substance abuse are connected to artificially inducing the brain to release hormones and transmitters that we have not, strictly speaking, “earned” through positive behaviors.
For example, when we go for a run, our body rewards this positive, life-enhancing behavior by flooding our systems with hormones and neurotransmitters that give us feelings of well-being, happiness and balance. However, we can also falsely induce such a state of well-being, through using substances.
Neurobiology also helps explain why addiction doesn’t work over time, as the body attempts to correct the toxic and negative effects of chemicals hijacking our reward pathways.
Overall, learning about the neurobiology of addiction can be enormously empowering for people in recovery, as it helps shine a light on the path out of suffering through understanding how the body creates true happiness, well-being and balance for us, when we stay connected to genuinely positive, healthy, and life-affirming behaviors.
How the brain responds to addictive substances
Mind altering substances have different effects on the brain and nervous system, loosely classed into stimulants and sedative effects, with each drug profile having a unique signature.
Regardless of their final effect, all habit-forming substances work on the brain in a similar way, in that they operate on the body in way that results in a “dopamine dump” in a specific part of the brain.
Dopamine is a neurotransmitter naturally produced in the body. Dopamine itself isn’t bad or inorganic to the body. It’s the triggering of dopamine outside of its appropriate, naturally- intended use in the body that creates mental, emotional, and physiological health problems.
Aside from any toxicity which any given chemical substance may induce – some drugs are more poisonous to the body than others – the brain is negatively impacted by this hijack of its store of pleasure-creating neurotransmitters.
These neurotransmitters are intended to be dispensed as a form of reward for positive, life-affirming behaviors. This mechanism is designed to help us learn which ways of living life are good for body mind and soul, and which ways are destructive.
When we interrupt the natural feedback system by giving ourselves the rewards of pleasure, peace and ease regardless of our actual behaviors, sooner or later this breaks down as our biology fights to correct this intrusion and theft of our ability to learn, grow, and respond to life positively.
One way the body and brain adapts to counteract the interference by chemicals is tolerance. Tolerance is the phenomenon of getting used to a substance, such that we need more and more of it in order to achieve the same effect as before.
Tolerance is the body reducing its response to the chemical, because the body does not agree that we should release dopamine unless we are truthfully experiencing positive growth and life-affirming choices and behaviors.
The body will change its neuronal pathways to reduce our sensitivity and responsiveness to any given chemical, so that we stay roughly in the realm of reality, where in actuality these chemicals are bringing harm to us, and will sooner or later be felt as doing so.
An important implication of these changes to our neural pathways is to understand that by using chemicals, we are changing our nervous systems, brains and bodies in such a way that we are taking away our ability to feel natural pleasure.
Anhedonia, or the inability to enjoy anything, is a side-effect of drug use for this reason. This means that even when engaging in natural, life-affirming behaviors like eating well, exercising, engaging in loving intimate relationships, we will struggle to access the normal rewards we would have felt before the introduction of substances. This can be repaired over time after stopping the use of drugs and alcohol, but it takes support and work to do so.
Another neurobiological insight into drug and alcohol addiction is to understand the ways that the body learns to associate using drugs with people, places and things. Just as Pavlov’s dog started salivating at the sound of the dinner bell, even in the absence of food, drug use trains us to experience cravings whenever we are exposed to past behaviors, situations, thoughts and feelings that we linked with addiction through repeated behavior in the past. This explains why addictions many habits are hard to unwire once in place.
All in all, learning more about the neurobiology of addiction can be very helpful in understanding how and why addiction gets ahold of us, as well as how to avoid future enslavement to any substance or compulsive behavior.
Why do people become addicted to certain substances
Any substance that effectively hijacks our inner reward system to release pleasure-generating neurotransmitters and hormones in the body tends to be highly addictive. The more quickly and intensively a pleasure response is created, the more addictive the substance.
People with tendencies towards addiction will likely become more fixated than the average person on any substance or behavior which does this. That’s why people with addiction patterning might also have problems with sugar addiction, sex addiction or digital addiction, as the same mechanism of finding ways to access good feelings quickly is at play.
The underlying reason for this behavior in the first place is complicated, owing partially to genetics and learned behaviors, and very likely to some level of traumatization. Traumatization is more widespread than is generally understood, representing a hidden epidemic driving many of our mental health and community struggles.
When a person has an underlying condition of traumatization, she is very likely to struggle with feeling ok consistently on a daily basis, which sets her up to be especially prone to looking for external assists to help her manage the inner state of distress, emotional dysregulation and mental pain.
Beyond that, specific substances may be especially appealing for different people. The appeal of particular substances to a particular person may be explained with a further look at the effects of traumatization on the nervous system.
Traumatization leads to a nervous system that gets stuck in certain states, too amped up and/or too pressed down. Depending on one’s base condition, we may be looking for substances that counteract or “treat” the problem we have in our nervous system.
Those who need help feeling energized and confident, because their nervous system rests in a state of depression, are often more susceptible to stimulating drugs that elevate one’s energy alongside mood. Those who experience more of being “too wound up” (anxiety) may be drawn to drugs with sedative effects.
Frequently, people get pulled into modulating both factors. Alcohol has both stimulating and sedating effects, for example, which is part of its strong hold on people. Other people use different substances in combination to create the balance of effects they’re looking for.
Learn more about your neurobiology during your recovery
The role of neurobiology in our suffering cannot be underestimated. There are many paths into understanding its impacts better in a way that really helps us.
At Villa Kali Ma we offer many ways to learn about your neurobiology as you recover from substance use, trauma, and/or mental health challenges in one of our many supportive, holistic programs.
Intellectual understanding of what is taking place in the body, brain, and nervous system whenever we are experiencing happiness, well-being, peace and safety is enormously helpful. Grasping how the body, soul, spirit and mind work together to generate a state which feels good to us and works for the chosen purposes of our lives is uplifting and empowering.
Villa Kali Ma provides a comprehensive overview and education for people participating in our holistic programs, helping create greater understanding of the nitty gritty operations of addiction.
Additionally, we provide hands-on experiences changing neurobiology through lifestyle practices, nutrition, the joys of self-expression, physicality, and emotionally-connecting experiences with positive, loving people in community.
Villa Kali Ma’s offering for the world centers around providing these many alternative, supportive, transformational channels of recovery alongside the Western model of healing. We hope you will come engage with us to find out the inner power you do have to lovingly support your own neurobiology to heal to states of true, deep well-being.