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  • Writer's pictureJon Sommers

Paradoxical Tastebuds

Alcohol doesn’t taste good at the start. It’s horrible fermented stuff that burns. I mean, it is a disinfectant and a poison that kills around 88,000 people a year – so why do we think it’s so good? Because your brain links the pleasurable effects of alcohol with the taste it remembers. And then you end up missing the taste when you don’t have it. No one starts with loving scotch, but you end up with Laphroaig and smelling like rotten peat moss. Why is that?

What Constitutes Pleasure

Let’s take food for example. When we eat food, our tastebuds stimulate the neurons in different centers in our brains. Various chemicals, including dopamine, are tied to this experience of pleasure. So here’s the interesting thing: science has definitely proven that sugars and sweet tastes are tied to pleasure, but what about food or drink that isn’t sweet? Or is even what many would consider gross?

Beyond the taste discussion is the concept of pleasurable painful experiences. I’m going to skip the dark side on this – but no one can tell me that a tattoo doesn’t hurt – that marathons don’t hurt – that childbirth isn’t painful – and so on. But these are things that people do again and again. Because the way we remember things is complicated with different impressions and chemicals with different patterns that get laid down in our brains. If you zoomed into a childbirth event there would be a whole substrate of pain. But from the high-level view it’s a beautiful experience like nothing else (as I am a man this is hearsay but I have this from many good sources). It’s this high-level view that form the majority of our decisions about what pleasure is.

Reinforced Cultural Ideals

If you’ve ever seen the show “Bizarre Foods with Andrew Zimmern” you would know how much variety there is in foods and delicacies around the world. How do these foods find such a niche and create such a pleasurable experience for those that partake in it? How do things like maggots, entrails, fermented whale blubber or half-formed duck embryo become a major delicacy? Rocky mountain oysters anyone?

I venture that it is not so much the flavor itself, but the events associated with it. Major occasions, celebrations, keynote social events, and so on form the base level memory that is pleasurable when viewed from a high-level. Especially from a child’s perspective, seeing the adults that they want to emulate partake in something that looks pleasurable creates the idea that they want to partake in it as well. There’s a whole science in “wanting vs. liking” and the buildup to what we consider a pleasurable event. Even if that event isn’t actually pleasurable, our brains remember it that way because we were supposed to.

From Top to Bottom

So now for the drinkers. The first time I got really schwasted (and that is indeed a technical term) I got sick, passed out in a bathroom stall, got lost, had my wallet stolen, and generally stumbled around San Diego until an acquaintance got me home. Sounds awesome right? Let’s do it again! Why?! Why in the world would we ever do that again? Here’s a note: they made a really funny movie about it called “The Hangover” – and it had sequels! Cultural reinforcement goes a long way into making what should be dastardly memories into pleasurable ones.

The people with alcohol issues will appreciate this next analogy. (But if you don’t know, most liquor stores keep the really good stuff on the top shelf and the rest in descending order.) I like to joke about everyone starting on the top shelf (or close to it) with the good stuff – but in the end you end up with a plastic bottle of Popov vodka from the bottom shelf because it fits in your coat pocket. So if one in seven Americans will develop a substance use disorder – then guess what? Six of them won’t. Congratulations if you’re one of them – I’m not. We’re the type who end up picking from the bottom shelf for the sake of expediency. We’re the ones who drink for effect and the taste doesn’t even matter at that point. But how did we get there? Even more extreme, how does a heroin user end up associating needles with getting high – to the point that the sight of any type of paraphernalia causes intense cravings?

It’s the associations formed in the brain between that pleasurable experience and the events associated with it. It’s the cravings caused by the brain’s wanting, even if the liking isn’t all there (due to something called tolerance). It’s because a pattern of reinforced behaviors became associated with what the brain determines as pleasure. We are designed to seek out pleasure, and as such, we are designed to be addicted to pleasurable things.

What is Normal?

If we learn anything from studying other cultures (and their foods thanks to Mr. Zimmern) it should be that these reinforced behaviors and pleasures are normal to that individual even if they are not normal to you. So with addiction please stop with the moral issue discussions. It has nothing to do with that. It has everything to do with understanding how our brains work, what is and becomes pleasurable, and how we form behavioral patterns. For example, a child that is raised to view alcohol use as a pleasurable event will continue to do so into adulthood until another positively reinforced pattern alters that view. Do we blame the individual for the reinforced behavioral patterns their culture caused? Or do we seek to understand them so we can work together to build new patterns? One method is confrontational and pointless. The other method is empathetic and useful.

Retraining our Brain

A phrase I say often when I run groups or teach about addiction: Recovery is not about not doing something – it’s about finding something different to do (you should read that twice). That is a truly positive statement. See, changing someone’s addictive behavioral patterns based on pleasure requires learning a new method of finding pleasure with new behavioral patterns. Punishment, ostracizing, mocking, marginalizing, or condescending sympathy do absolutely nothing but reinforce the original pleasure-seeking behavior (this sucks so bad I’m going back to what I know felt good). If we can’t offer something of equal value and reset the brain to want that – then we will never be successful in breaking addiction.

As a person in long term Recovery for alcohol my primary focus is my mental health. My personal journey is about awareness and understanding, and finding new ways to deal with life, new ways to find pleasure, new ways to turn my brain off (which never happens by the way), and new ways to socialize. My efforts are towards creating new reinforced behavioral patterns that eventually become my new normal.

These reinforced behavioral patterns that we all carry are deeply engrained in both our conscious and subconscious. Have a little grace with yourself – and a lot of grace for others. It took us all a while to get here – it will take us a while to get somewhere else.


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