Home Health Addiction: The Human Brain as Reward Detector

Addiction: The Human Brain as Reward Detector


Let’s talk addiction. according to a 2014 study, almost 240 million people are addicted to alcohol worldwide. That’s almost the population of Pakistan. SHOCKING RIGHT. let me tell you how.

Addiction is defined as the inability to refrain from the use of a substance, chemical, activity or drug despite the knowledge that it will lead to physical harm.

there are many types of substances or drugs that can cause addiction. some of them are:

  • alcohol
  • cannabis
  • tobacco
  • anti-anxiety medicines such as tranquillizers
  • cocaine
  • prescription pain killers like codon and oxycodone or heroin
  • inhalants like paint thinners and glue
  • PCP, LCD and other hallucinogens

gambling is also a type of addiction but it is categorized as a behavioural addiction.

The inability to stop certain activity simply means that the desire to feel the burn of whiskey or to puff up a cigarette or to buy that gorgeous pair of shoes or to eat that warm gulab jamun soaked in fragrant sugar syrup becomes so great that you are compelled to take it even if you have or will have liver failure, lung cancer, major credit card debt or diabetes.

Now the question arises why do we do that? we are the best of creation. surely if we know how it works we will be able to stop it, right? WRONG!!

Why do we develop an Addiction?

The answer to this question lies in the wiring of our brain. Our brain is designed in such a way that it rewards such behaviours which help in survival. Have you ever felt good about yourself after handing over some money to a needy or after you have taken a bite of a delicious fried chicken or after the teacher announcing your first place among your peers in the assembly hall?

The certain amount of happiness that we feel after we achieve something is your brain rewarding you in the form of a chemical called dopamine. and the circuitry that’s working for this is the limbic system.

The limbic system is our emotion and memory centre which receive signals from the eyes, ear and various other parts of the body. it helps in regulating various emotions, hunger, body temperature, sex etc. Normally the cycles of pleasure are well balanced as opportunities are low.

Anna Rose Childress, a clinical neuroscientist at the University of Pennsylvania, in an interview with a magazine, said

we are  all exquisite reward detectors. it’s our evolutionary legacy.

Simply put, we crave the pleasure that comes with dopamine and we all know excess of anything is bad.

How do we get Addiction?

Every addiction starts with a conscious step, people start these habits for one of these four reasons

  • to feel good
  • to escape reality….i.e from problems in personal lives
  • to do better…..in exams etc
  • peer pressure or general curiosity

If someone pursues certainly pleasurable activity or drug for too long, he slowly develops a fixed pathway. And that surge of dopamine becomes a must-have for the brain. More or less like a toddler, who doesn’t care if it is doomsday but he will insist on having that last cookie.

Every misuse is not necessarily called addiction. Stopping drinking after binging on a Saturday night with a banging hangover the next day is not an addiction. The inability to stop drinking even when you have a hangover is an addiction.

Vivek Murthy, U.S. surgeon general 2016, said in an interview:

Addiction is a disease, not a moral failing.its characterized not neccesasarily by dependence or withdrawl but by compulsive repetition of an activity despite life damaging consequences

Now we have 24/7 opportunities to stimulate our limbic systems. Every puff of smoke or shot of heroin leads to an even higher need to fulfil the same desire, to reach the same high.

Nowadays we have smartphones and high-speed internet. A day without screen time is unfathomable for millennials and z generations. We cannot stop ourselves from reaching the phone with a ping of notification.

The need to start another game doesn’t end even when we have been playing till the break of dawn. for some, gambling, even at the cost of wife or daughter, becomes nothing.

Although gaming, excessive shopping, social media has not been officially recognized as an addiction yet due to far fewer studies. but doctors and scientist have warned of its dangerous repercussions.


We have to recognize this disease which grows in the shadows and consume millions of lives. the treatment for addiction although hard is not impossible. By practising tolerance with those affected by this disease and giving them emotional and social support as a community, can work wonders.


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