Meaning and Biology in Addiction

When we talk about meaning-making sense of our lives—most people tend to forget that our biology, our physical bodies, give us messages all the time, which help us make sense of ourselves and the world around us. When we don’t eat, our body sends the message that we are hungry. When we don’t drink water, our body sends the message that we’re thirsty. When we hit our thumb with a hammer, our body sends the message that we are injured.

In fact, our biology affects how we make sense of pretty much everything, but it usually does so in ways that we’re not even aware of. Because we’re so used to being in our bodies, we don’t think about how they influence the meanings we make.

Let’s look at a nonhuman creature to understand this. If my dogs could talk, I wouldn’t be able to understand them. They make sense of themselves and their world through smell. Evolution gave them a vomeronasal organ and huge numbers of smell receptors. Humans have about 6 million receptors. A beagle has 300 million. Some dogs even have big floppy ears that help channel scents to the nose. And, unlike humans, who can grow so accustomed even to bad smells, scents are always fresh for a dog. Based on this smelling apparatus, dogs have specific ways of making sense of things. The great philosopher, Ludwig Wittgenstein, famously said, “If a lion could talk, we could not understand him.” Lions make sense of their world in large part through the strengths and limitations of the lion’s body.

Similarly, how human beings make sense of themselves and their world is dependent on their physical bodies. We need to breathe the air, so the meanings we give to swimming or air pollution will necessarily be linked to this. We can’t jump very high, so any way that we make sense of things won’t include being able to jump very high. We have thumbs, which dramatically affect how we make sense of things. If I want to bring my dogs in for the night, I have to open the door; it never enters my mind that the dog should open the door.

In this blog, we examine a few topics that deal directly with meaning, addiction, and biology.

Addiction & Disconnection from the Body

One of the problems faced by those with addictions is that they have become disconnected from their physical body. This makes perfect sense. Paying attention to what your body in active addiction tells you would interfere with using.

Most alcoholics, for example, prefer to drink on an empty stomach, even though their body is telling them to eat. It’s easier showing up for work the morning after a drinking binge if you can tamp down the messages your body is sending you that you’re sick. It’s easier to keep using if you don’t pay attention to weight loss or skin rashes. Before admission to our facility, a client ended up in the hospital. While there, the doctors noticed that two of his back teeth had rotted away. He said he barely noticed a toothache. The same appears to be true for those in early recovery. A massage therapist at our center reports that many clients tell him they feel relaxed, even though he can feel the tension in their muscles.

Meaning and Physical Disorders

Problematic changes in our bodies should tell us to make sense of ourselves differently. Those who are attuned to what these changes tell them to accept this. But many clients we’ve worked with at our facility disregard the messages. One client had a heart attack a year before he entered treatment for his addiction to alcohol. Of course, he put himself at great risk for a second cardiac event by getting drunk daily. But even after he stopped drinking, he didn’t listen to the messages. The way he made sense of his heart was that the heart attack was an aberration. It happened, and the doctors fixed it, so he’s better. He can return to what he used to do before the attack.

According to research, this is actually a common problem with men in general. After a major heart problem, they often refuse to accept that their hearts are weaker. Many men think a physical impairment is a sign of weakness or being less than a man. They don’t like the idea that they are no longer the guy who can shovel out two feet of snow on the driveway or play a game of hockey, and they often go back to these activities with gusto the way they used to.

It’s curious that many people with addictions immediately go on a drug binge after being diagnosed with HIV+. Rather than taking care of this severe illness, they try to avoid it. Thankfully, many enter treatment after the binge. Such cases offer compelling evidence of just how those with addictions are so disconnected from their physical selves.

Meaning and Death

As far as we know, human beings are the only creatures that are aware they will die. This knowledge of death has profound consequences for us. Although most of us don’t go around every day thinking about death, at some level of consciousness death always seems to affect us. Some psychologists even say that awareness of death is the greatest single psychological influence on us.

The anxiety that arises from knowing we will die affects all human beings, not just the addicted, of course. Many people who exercise and eat right are quite conscious that their bodies will wear out and try to slow the process. Most people given a major medical diagnosis, such as cancer, are acutely aware of death.

It’s curious that those suffering from drug addictions know that drugs are harming their bodies, yet they continue to use substances. In the novel Leaving Las Vegas, Ben continues to drink even though it’s obvious that the alcohol is killing him. His friend, Sera, can’t make sense of this. She asks him, “Are you saying that you’re drinking as a way to kill yourself?” He corrects her: “Or killing myself as a way to drink.” Ben ignores the messages his body is telling him because they interrupt his drinking.

Do Our Bodies in Control Us?

Some neuroscientists (brain scientists) have proposed that our bodies—not our thoughts—initiate action. They argue that we do something but only become conscious of our actions a fraction of a second later.

Neuroscientist Benjamin Libet became famous for an experiment that, he said, proved this. He wired up the brains of volunteers as they did a simple activity such as pressing a button. Each volunteer was quite sure that he or she (1) made a decision to press the button, and then (2) pressed the button. But not according to the experimental data. The brain initiated the button pressing, and about 300 milliseconds later the volunteer was aware of his conscious decision to press the button. Libet’s experiment caused quite a stir because human beings seem to be convinced they have free will. But the experiment suggested that some unconscious brain process had taken place before the volunteer became conscious of it.

We often react to danger without really being conscious of what the danger is. Seeing a black tubular shape in the grass, we jump back as the first reaction. Later, we become conscious of the event and investigate whether it was a snake or a rubber hose.

If my heart is racing, do I then become conscious of my racing heart and look around to come up with an explanation? Maybe my heart races before I’m conscious of it, and then, to find out why, I discover a bear jogging toward me. I may think that the reason my heart is racing is that I first saw the bear, but perhaps I was conscious of the bear only after I noticed my heart was racing.

Lots of scientists have found flaws in Libet’s experiment. Still, it indicates that our physical bodies send messages to us on how to interpret things. Of course, as human beings, we rely on our emotions, behaviours, thoughts, and relationships to make sense of ourselves and the world. But we also rely on our bodies.

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