For the addicts who are still unaware, the line between normal- and addictive-behavior tends to blur again and again until it seems more like a faded smudge on their life. For those looking at addicts from the outside, the line normally seems so clear and so far away that they rarely believe it can be crossed back again.
A person who has a reduced ability to control initial impulses may have exactly the same thought and yet go through with the action, leaving them feeling remorseful and anxious the next day, but still having put themselves at risk. The thoughts are there, the knowledge is there, but the ability to connect those to actions is seriously lacking.
Nora Volkow, director of the National Institute on Drug Abuse (NIDA), thinks that drugs and other addictive habits tap into some of the deepest forces within us – our lust for newness, our yearning for vitality and the deep-down thrill of being alive. “We all seek that intensity,” she says. “There’s something very powerful about that.”
Volkow and other researchers are developing a new understanding of addiction. Rather than just telling us to feel good, dopamine, the brain chemical involved in motivation, pleasure and learning, tells us what’s salient – the unexpected bits of new information we need to pay attention to in order to survive, like alerts about sex, food and pleasure, as well as danger and pain.
So maybe addicts aren’t just chasing a good time. Perhaps their brains have somehow mistakenly learned that drugs are the most important thing to pay attention to, as crucial to survival as food or sex.
The salience theory of dopamine also provides new explanations for other self-destructive human tendencies, from binge eating to gambling. It may explain why we crave the stimulation of new information. Since dopamine is also involved in learning, memory and motivation, the chemical helps us pay attention to the information we need to survive, act upon it, and remember it for the future.
What do I care about addiction? Unfortunately I fight it everyday. My nemesis comes in the form of the internet and one website in particular. No, not that one, sick freaks; Sporcle.com to be specific.
For the uninitiated, Sporcle is a massive collection of quizzes covering any subject and topic imaginable.
Wondering if 8th grade geography has survived those weekends of drinking? Name all the United States capitals in ten minutes. Perhaps Disney princesses more closely align with your strengths. Within five minutes name 14 of the leading ladies from The Little Mermaid and Who Framed Roger Rabbit? all the way to Atlantis: The Lost Empire and The Black Cauldron.
The most dastardly aspect of the site is a button situated in the top right corner: “Random Quiz.” By clicking there, users are whisked off on another challenge that surely will torment and surprise. If a particular subject suits the user, there is even an option to have a random quiz within the discipline brought up on the screen.
Once starting a quiz, users can choose to “give up” after about twenty seconds if they are stumped, lazy, or just curious about the answers. Those with a competitive streak however, will surely fight the urge to quit as long as possible. The quizzes are just that intense. Egos are guaranteed to be inflated and bruised, all within the first half hour.
After completing a quiz, giving up, or time expiring, the moment of truth is revealed and the user’s score is compared to the rest of the quiz takers across the web. Each correct answer is broken down by the percent that got it right as well as the total score’s percentile ranking.
I was not kidding when I talked of addiction to start this week’s column. Just be glad I wrote about Sporcle.com now and not in May right before finals. It may just allow some time to catch up on the sleep that inevitably will be lost!