Should Drug Addiction Be Viewed as a Learning Disorder?

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Drug addiction has gone mainstream with more people confronting the realities of prescription pill and heroin drug addiction along with other substances. Lawmakers are working to provide legislation to combat it but the complexities make it hard to find a one-size-fits-all solution. One question is whether addiction can be a learned behavior. Find out more about this hypothesis and what it means for the nature of addiction.

Learning Addiction

Some people believe that taking a substance makes the individual feel better and will continue to take the drugs even if it produces negative consequences. Substance abuse unfolds as the brain undergoes the maturation process and people respond to formative experiences. Ninety percent of all addictions begin in the teens and 20s which makes sense as to the evolution of addiction from a young age but whether it is considered a learning disorder is a different matter entirely.

Understanding the Basis of Addiction

The concept of addiction as a learning disorder is not new and one of the prime examples of explaining the role of formation of addiction is social learning theory. This theory states behavior is learned from the environment through the process of observational learning. Within social learning theory there are two fundamental ways in which we learn behavior: classical conditioning and operant conditioning.

Classical conditioning:  occurs when the pairing of pleasure felt when taking substances according to cues in the environment. Repeated exposure of the mindset and setting with the drug can powerfully reinforce and lead to development of addiction.

Operant conditioning:  based on a system of rewards and punishments. If an individual uses a substance for the first time and it is a rewarding experience with no association with unpleasant consequences, the more likely people will be to continue with the drug. If family members or friends discontinue enabling behavior then the wheels suddenly set in motion for the person with addiction to address addictive patterns of behavior and to seek help.

Learned Behavior

The concept of addiction as a learned behavior is focused around decision making and learning framed by the problem or situation. When a person is rational, the individual will evaluate options and risks versus rewards before making a decision. When evaluation occurs, dopamine systems play a large role in the process. Dopamine is the ‘feel good’ neurotransmitter that is produced in the brain and the dopamine centers respond to rewards whether primary (food, water, sex) or abstract (money). The release of dopamine means the amount released will be dependent on experienced or anticipated expectation that occurs with rewards. If a reward is expected then the release may not be so huge. Learning takes place when something unexpected occurs and the reward system is sent the message old rules do not apply and it is time to learn a new association. This system is skewed in addiction but people take cues from many situations and can learn to take substances over time due to the dopamine release and other similar experiences within the body.

Sustain Recovery is a place where adolescents can come and receive appropriate care for addiction. If you or a loved one are struggling with addiction and need help recovering, call us to find out how we can help support your journey.

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