December 26, 2010
By Richard Clark (about the author)
This article is based on an interview that Amy Goodman did with Canadian physician and best-selling author, Dr. Gabor Mate’, whose books are listed at the end of this article.
Whether it’s a shopping addiction or an addiction to opiates, and whether we know it or not, we’re all looking for more endorphins for our brains. Endorphins are the brain’s feel-good, reward, pleasure, and pain-relief chemicals. Even more amazing, they are the “love chemicals” that connect us to the universe — to God, or the “oceanic experience” as Freud called it — and to one another.
The problem for addicts is that this circuitry doesn’t function very well. The circuitry of incentive and motivation, which involves the chemical dopamine, also doesn’t function very well. Stimulant drugs like cocaine and crystal meth, nicotine and caffeine, all elevate dopamine levels in the brain, as does sexual acting out, as do extreme sports, as does workaholism, and so on.
So why do these circuits not work so well in drug addicts? After all, the so-called addictive drugs, in themselves, are not, rather surprisingly, very addictive — which is to say that most people who try most drugs never become addicted to them. And so, there has to be individual susceptibility involved, to explain those who do get addicted. And these susceptible people are of course the ones with these impaired brain circuits , and that impairment is caused by early life experience adversity, rather than by genetics.
What is meant by “early life experience adversity”?
The human brain, unlike that of any other mammal, for the most part develops under the influence of the environment. And that’s because, from an evolutionary point of view, we developed these large heads, large fore-brains. And to walk on two legs we must have a narrow pelvis. This means — large head, narrow pelvis — that compared to other mammals, we have to be born prematurely. Otherwise, we would never get born. The head is the biggest part of the newborn human body. Now, the horse can run on the first day of life. Human beings don’t get that developed for two years. This means that much of our brain development, which in other animals occurs safely in the uterus, for us has to occur out there in the environment. And so it is that which circuits develop, and which don’t, depend very much on environmental input. Thus our developing brains are exposed to the possibility of early life experience adversity.
The problem here is that when children are mistreated, stressed or abused, their brains don’t develop the way they ought to. It’s that simple. Unfortunately, however, the medical profession incorrectly puts all the emphasis on genetics rather than on the environment, which, of course, has a simple explanation: It lets everybody off the hook.
What is meant by “letting people off the hook?”
If we can pretend that people’s behaviors and dysfunctions are regulated, controlled and determined by genes, and not the social and emotional environment, we don’t have to look at child welfare policies, we don’t have to look at the kind of support that our society provides to pregnant women, and we don’t have to look at the kind of non-support that is, pitifully, extended to families. The reality is that most children in North America now have to be away from their parents from an early age, because of the dire economic situation and associated considerations that have sprung up over the past 30 years, since Reaganomics first began to take its terrible toll. Because of current welfare laws, most mothers are now forced to go find low-paying jobs far away from home, and cannot see their kids for most of the day. The tragic reality is that under these conditions, kids’ brains don’t develop the way they need to. Myriad problems result, both for the children and for the society.