Thursday, July 26, 2007

Addiction and disease: My comments on the TIME Science blog

Here's a fragment from Lemonick's blog post:

Addiction is NOT a Disease??? - Eye on Science - Science Blog - Michael D. Lemonick - TIME

A couple of weeks ago, Alice Park and I wrote a cover story about addiction. In it, we kept talking about the fact that addiction is a disease of the brain.

Silly us. While that's admittedly the view of the National Institute on Drug Abuse and the vast majority of addiction specialists, we forgot to talk to Sally Satel and Scott Lilienfeld. If we had, we would just have said "never mind." Yesterday, this dynamic duo published this essay at, in which they set the record straight.

Satel and Lilienfeld, a psychiatrist and a psychologist, respectively, explain that addiction is no disease. It's a habit. "But like other bad habits," they write, "it can be broken." Which is to say, it's kind of like picking your nose in public, evidently, except that it's more expensive...

And here's my comment:

This is a deeper topic than you're suggesting. The past twenty years of neuroscience have been putting a tighter and tighter box around what "free will" can be. Much of what we are and do is determined by our genes, and the rest is pretty much set in-utero (the primary environmental component). The next 5-10 years may add another 10-15% of variation, and we don't have much control over that, do we?

After age 10 we're pretty much on cruise control -- or so it seems.

So the contrarians aren't really arguing about addiction, they're arguing about the fundamental basis of responsibility. If all we are and do is determined by our genes and uterine residence, then what does punishment mean?

So their arguments are nonsensical, but their anxiety is completely understandable. If our civilization survives I am reasonably certain that within 40 years our concepts of punishment and responsibility will be dramatically different.

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