Thinking About Craving

Thinking About Craving

It’s So Basic, But It’s Not Easy to Understand

I have been thinking a lot about cravings lately. What is craving, really? What’s it all about?

Craving seems to amount to a fundamental sense of being incomplete. When we crave, we want something to fill us up. We want to fill a hole, by taking something out there in the world and putting it into ourselves.

I’ve talked about ego fatigue and delay discounting lately. These are phenomena that strengthen the impulsive urge to take something—now! But where does that urge come from? What’s its origin, and what form does it take in our inner worlds?

Marc Lewis, Ph.D. is a developmental neuroscientist and professor of developmental psychology, recently at the University of Toronto, where he taught and conducted research from 1989 to 2010, and presently at Radboud University in the Netherlands. He is the author or co-author of over 50 journal publications in psychology and neuroscience. Marc experimented with a large variety of drugs in his youth, eventually becoming addicted to opiates.

Editor: Nadeem Noor

I’ve long thought that most people who become addicted to something have been badly hurt or scarred while growing up. This view is shared by many others, including Gabor Maté, our Canadian addiction specialist. So we’ve been shamed or rejected by parents or close friends, punished when we didn’t expect it or understand it, bullied, raped, or abandoned, or maybe we’ve lost someone dear to us, maybe more than once.

Yet these wounds don’t explain the craving for something else. They explain why we suffer.

The thing is that suffering is part of life. Many many people in the world accept suffering as inevitable. Many who suffer do not become addicts. But for those of us who have been addicted, there seems to be a fundamental expectation that’s truly flawed: the expectation that we can be made complete by something out there in the world. What made us think that? What made us imagine that we could relieve our suffering in that way? Or does addiction reflect some crazy optimism, a hope for relief that never gets extinguished?

Addiction must start off with the very real experience of getting relief from something outside ourselves: a substance (like booze or drugs) or an act (like gambling or sex). We naturally stumble on such experiences in adolescence or young adulthood. Then the thing that provides relief becomes a goal with a greater and greater draw. Hence, we crave it when we have to go without it.

Yet the conclusion that we become more complete when we have that thing… that can’t just come from a few arbitrary experiences of intoxication or pleasure. We must come prepared—predisposed—to feel that way. And then we find the key that fits the hole.

The belief that we are incomplete without that thing seems like a fundamental, bedrock assumption at the root of craving and pursuing addictive activities. What could be its origin?

Please also visit my home blog, where a number of recovered, recovering, half-recovering, and not-so-recovered addicts of various substances are developing a productive and friendly dialogue, fueled by knowledge of the brain as well as personal experience.

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