Marc Lewis gets personal about the neuroscience of addiction
When theGeorgia Straight reaches neuroscientist Marc Lewis in Arnhem, in the Netherlands, he’s making toast and sipping tea while his five-year-old twins holler and giggle in the background. The former University of Toronto professor says he and his family love it in the land of tulips, where he’s landed a teaching job at Radboud University. It’s hard to believe this is the same man who was addicted to hard drugs by the time he was 17 and was later kicked out of graduate school because he was caught breaking into medical labs and stealing morphine.
He didn’t always shoot the liquid into his veins; sometimes he drank it. Other times, he found bottles of the substance in powder form and snorted it.
Yet even being booted out of the University of Windsor, where he was pursuing his dream of becoming a psychologist, wasn’t enough to prompt Lewis to stop using drugs.
“I wasn’t ever physically addicted to anything for more than days or weeks at a time, but I was certainly psychologically addicted for years, and that’s the thing that’s hardest to beat,” Lewis says. “I kept trying to stop for years. I probably tried to stop 100 or 200 times.”
Lewis, who taught developmental psychology at the University of Toronto from 1989 to 2010, says he started drinking alcohol when he was 15. He had just started going to boarding school.
“I was miserable there,” Lewis says. “I started the usual experimenting with booze, then moved on to cough medicine.”
After high school, he went to Berkeley. It was 1968.
“I thought I’d made it to the gates of heaven. I started out with psychedelics and acid and mescaline and all that stuff that people were doing in those days. Then I got into harder stuff and into more serious problems with psychotics, drugs like heroin.
“I didn’t know it at the time, but [with drug use,] your synaptic networks were cemented, narrowed, streamlined, and powered by neurochemicals in the drugs; the anticipation of the drug becomes reinforced. You learn that’s the thing you want, that’s the thing that you need, and you’ll do anything to get it.”
With years of personal experience with all sorts of illicit substances and many more spent studying the way the brain functions, Lewis has a unique perspective on addiction. He looks back at those tumultuous, terrible years through the lens of science in his new book, Memoirs of an Addicted Brain: A Neuroscientist Examines His Former Life on Drugs.
He’ll be in North Vancouver on Thursday (October 6) to talk about the neuroscience of addiction as well as his youth spent abusing everything from Demerol to Methedrine, a brand of methamphetamine, or, as he calls it, “pharmaceutical speed”. Part of the Pacific Arbour Speaker Series, Lewis’s talk takes place at the North Shore Credit Union Centre for the Performing Arts at Capilano University.
In his book, Lewis seamlessly integrates the physiology and psychology of addiction with his own vivid, disturbing memories. It’s a fascinating and fact-filled glimpse into the world of needles and need.
He recalls, for instance, the first time he tried heroin, saying the effects hit within 10 seconds of the injection. “The things around me, the walls of the too-bright bathroom, the air itself, are suddenly spinning,” Lewis writes. “And the centre of this vortex is me….The weight of my body is enormous. A condensed mass. But this weight is not a physical thing: it’s a nexus of bodily comfort and emotional well-being. A warm syrup. There is no sleepiness, no drowsiness….Outside of me nothing exists.”
Then he flips effortlessly to an explanation of what was happening in his body and brain.
Natural opioids, those produced by the hypothalamus, provide relief from pain or stress and produce a sense of pleasure that can help “energize” any goal, Lewis explains in the book.
“At the brain level, opioids in the ventral striatum cause the feeling of well-being, but then they trigger dopamine release, enhancing the appeal of whatever’s showing up on the screen of perception,” he writes. “Natural goodies like food and sex certainly follow the progression from liking to wanting. Feels good—want more. But with goodies both natural and acquired, it is dopamine’s flame of desire, unleashed by the ahhhhh of opioids, that causes animals to repeat behaviours that lead to satisfaction.
“Here in one neat package is the fundamental chemistry of learning, which really means learning what feels good and how to get more of it. Yet there’s a downside: the slippery slope, the repetition compulsion, that constitutes addiction. In other words, addiction may be a form of learning gone bad.”
For Lewis, whatever kind of drug he could get his hands on was better than his severe loneliness and depression.
“Finally, it just got so nasty and horrible—people I loved said goodbye, my friends were…freaked out by my behaviour—it became intolerable,” he says. “It got so ugly, so overwhelmingly awful, it helped to change my habit.
“It was an emotional disgust so intense that helped to set it [his overcoming addiction] in motion: I said, ‘I really can’t ever do this again, ever.’ I wrote a note to myself, a big note, that just said ‘No.’ I stuck it up on the wall and I looked at it 20 times a day….Days turned to weeks, weeks turned to months, and finally I thought, ‘Okay I can do this.’ ”
Lewis says people can become addicted to anything: drugs, alcohol, gambling, food, cigarettes, sex, even love.
“It’s extremely important to understand that the brain is like ivy: it keeps growing, connecting, and forming patterns; those patterns reinforce themselves, and once they do, they are really hard to break,” he says.
“Addiction is very shaming; people feel horrible, as if it’s a personal weakness,” Lewis adds. “Everyone can probably relate to some of this. “The book aims to bring it home and say ‘This is what it’s like; this is what’s going on in your brain, and this is why it’s so hard to stop.’ ”