The Biology Of Desire: Why Addiction is Not a Disease

Neuroscientist Marc Lewis was addicted to drugs through most of his 20's. He says the widely-held view that addiction is a disease is completely wrong. His takes a developmental approach to rethink addiction - and recovery.

Most of the world's esteemed neuroscientists do not  approach the study of addiction with first-hand experience, but Marc Lewis used a range of drugs when he was a younger man and was addicted through much of his 20's. He believes the widely-held view that addiction is a disease is completely wrong.

Marc Lewis spent more than 20 years at the University of Toronto. He's now at Radboud University in the Netherlands. He has written or co-written more than 50 articles in journals of neuroscience and developmental psychology. His latest book is 'The Biology of Desire: Why Addiction is Not a Disease.' 

Instead of pathologizing addiction, Lewis approaches it from a developmental perspective. He sees addiction as part of the brain's normal functioning. "All of the habits in our repertoire are learned and addiction is particularly deeply learned and therefore it's a habit that's hard to break."  Lewis says when a person becomes addicted - to a substance (drugs, alcohol) or a behaviour (shopping, gambling, or sex) - their goals narrow to such a degree that little - or nothing - else matters. 

Neuroscientist Marc Lewis spent most of his 20's addicted to drugs. That experience and his background in developmental psychology inform his unconventional understanding of addiction - and recovery. (Isabela Granic)

Rethink addiction, rethink recovery

"The adage that people have to hit bottom very often has a lot going for it. People do need to suffer. And addiction does lead to suffering. Addiction is hell. It's nasty, it's boring, it's destructive, and it leads to huge amounts of shame and self-recrimination and self-disgust. And that suffering is the path to recovery because that's how you get new goals." - Marc Lewis

Lewis says in order to overcome addiction, the desire for a fix must be replaced - or overpowered - by a new desire. In other words, the desire to get clean, limit substance use, or have a healthy relationship with a partner, children, or the world, eventually outweighs the desire to get high, get sex, or get thin. 

But the road to recovery isn't always straightforward. Sometimes those two desires - to feed the addiction and to overcome it - co-exist for a time, but in most cases people beat their addiction. Lewis cited some surprising statistics about addiction and recovery from the National Epidemiological Survey on Addiction and Related Conditions.

Lewis says that with the exception of certain medications to help opiate addicts manage their withdrawal symptoms, "medicine doesn't really have that much to offer most addicts." Psychological or spiritual work is the most effective path to overcoming addiction. Practices like cognitive behavioural therapy, motivational interviewing, and meditation help addicts to become conscious of their goals and to focus on a new goal. 

Win a copy of Marc Lewis' book

We have two copies of The Biology of Desire to give away.  To enter your name in the draw, email us: tapestry@cbc.ca.

CBC's generic contest rules apply. 


To encourage thoughtful and respectful conversations, first and last names will appear with each submission to CBC/Radio-Canada's online communities (except in children and youth-oriented communities). Pseudonyms will no longer be permitted.

By submitting a comment, you accept that CBC has the right to reproduce and publish that comment in whole or in part, in any manner CBC chooses. Please note that CBC does not endorse the opinions expressed in comments. Comments on this story are moderated according to our Submission Guidelines. Comments are welcome while open. We reserve the right to close comments at any time.

Become a CBC Member

Join the conversation  Create account

Already have an account?