Heroin is Ice Cream
You read the title. It’s probably why you clicked on it to see how far down the rabbit hole I’ll go on this. Most of what I say is designed to make you think – to reason in ways that society has not taught you to.
Dopamine is the key component in the brain conditioning of reward-motivated behavior. It also plays a large role in the reward behaviors of wanting and liking.
The dopamine cycle begins where we discover that certain actions or substances cause a reward release in our brains. This causes our brains to remember that action or substance stronger than it would other memories (liking). It is associated with pleasure; therefore, it is good, and we must remember it so we can do it again (wanting).
Sugar is sweet. It releases dopamine, which signals pleasure in our brain. If your parents were like mine, I had to eat all my “nasty” foods before I could have my dessert – my happy food (liking). I mean, what kid have you seen that refuses to eat sugary foods? None. So, our conditioning begins at a very young age, our reward-motivated behavior. This is reinforced over years of conditioning, building up subconscious behavior responses that drive our decision making as we get older.
Over time, these base behaviors are reinforced – we plan our meals with dessert at the end. Dessert becomes normalized, then becomes habitual, then becomes compulsory (how dare we not have dessert!).
Do you ever wonder why the drink and dessert menu is placed on the table when you first get into many restaurants? This is smart psychology on the restaurateur’s part. This causes our brains to remember the pleasurable event of eating dessert and stimulates the wanting part of the dopamine cycle. This is not that different in conditioning than the quintessential Pavlov response (except most of us don’t drool). Our brains have been conditioned from a young age to want (or crave) desserts after dinner.
Heroin actives the dopamine circuit at a level many times higher than sugar or natural substances. It is the same circuit associated with the same conditioning and the same reinforceable behaviors. The brain remembers the action as extremely pleasurable and of course it seeks to do it again.
This is where the “addiction is a choice” discussion begins. Our brains are ruled by our chemistry. That’s all neurons are – chemical transmitters. Is it any wonder that shooting a heroin orgasm into the middle of our brains overloads any pain, bad feelings, or events (liking)? I mean, that’s why opioids are such a potent pain reliever. And then is it any surprise that we would want to do it again and again?
Addicts don’t just start with the end in mind – I mean if we did, that’s pretty damn stupid. No, we start because just like dessert, it feels good and makes us forget the bad. The addictive cycle goes into full swing when the liking goes down through tolerance and the wanting goes up through reinforced (addictive) behaviors. The substance becomes a survival need to the brain – so everything else becomes secondary.
So here’s the controversial part. Do you like dessert? Then you are no different from someone who likes heroin. Both hit the same reward center in the brain, and both are associated with ritualistic reinforced and pleasurable events.
Why is one so acceptable and one is a pariah – a moral failure? The opioid “epidemic” kills around 55,000 people a year while cardiovascular disease kills over 647,000, the U.S. leading cause of death – with the primary risk factors of obesity, inactivity, and diet. There are genetic underlays for both heroin addiction and cardiovascular disease, but the overwhelming similarity is that both are primarily caused by the individual’s choices.
I don’t bring this up to malign either one of these groups – I have no business maligning anyone (I have my own issues). I bring this up because heroin and ice cream are the same. We should not relate a morality of choice to either of them. Diabetes, obesity, and heart disease kill the same as a heroin overdose. It’s still death. And it still is derived from the reward-motivated behaviors of wanting and liking.
Is shooting up together any different than sharing your chocolate and a bottle of wine with a depressed friend? If you strip the stigma from either act, they are the same.