The Elusive Science of Addiction

Many addicts report that taking drugs provides a feeling like being hugged, a feeling they are unlikely to find elsewhere. It is time that we acknowledge that, for many patients, social exclusion, marginalization, poverty, and loneliness are part of the addictive process.

LINKÖPING, SWEDEN – I still remember a conversation I had more than 25 years ago, when I was a young physician, just starting in my work with patients struggling with drugs and alcohol. “You know, doc,” a patient told me. “Getting drunk or taking heroin feels like being hugged by mom.”

I have since heard countless variations on that theme, and I’ve found them moving and fascinating. But my training had taught me not to conduct science by anecdote. So I tucked what my patients told me in the touchy-feely part of my mind. Then I went back to the lab and the rat brains that I hoped would help me figure out how to address mental health problems.

But if I had stepped back and given it some thought, it would have been pretty obvious that people with addictive disorders have strong incentives to seek whatever can make them feel like being hugged. It is important that neuroscientists start to make sense of the fact that there are, for the most part, not too many other hugs available to them.

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