Sunday, October 30, 2011

Addiction and the Pop Brain

Pardon the long absence.  Somewhere between finishing the PhD and moving, blogging fell by the wayside. 

Meanwhile, the discourse of around addiction has only been increasing.  Today’s New York Times includes a great example of how the neuroscientific language around addiction is encompassing an ever-widening array of phenomena.  On today’s menu of new ‘addictions’ is exercise.  Actually Kristof’s piece points out just how many substances and behaviors have been shown to ‘light up the brain.  I am reminded of Craig Reinerman’s interesting article -- Policing Pleasure. Food, Drugs, and the Politics of Ingestion – where he points out that brain imaging technology has revealed an “embarrassment of riches;” it turns out that many things – maybe even most things --  light up the brain.  For me this raises some questions.  First, if so many things (Kristof cites illicit drugs, sugar, sex, gambling, money, and altruism) activate our brain centers and “cause addiction,” does the word “addiction” begin to lose its meaning?  Second, how does the idea that these substances and behavior “change our brains” affect how individuals understand their own relationship to “addiction.”  Kristoff asserts that addiction neuroscience does not undermine free will.  But I am not sure how we are to hold onto the idea of free will while simultaneously understanding addiction as a brain disease that changes the brain and erodes the capacity for self-control. All the more reason why need to hear from those labeled "addicts" about what this new brain science means to them.

In any case, today’s NYT piece is evidence of the popularization of neuroscience to explain all manner of personal and social problems.  It seems very reminiscence of how genomics was (and often still is)  used to explain everything from diseases to personal habits.  Barbara Katz Rothman’s book, 
The Book of Life: A Personal and Ethical Guide to Race,Normality and the Human Gene Study, offers a great critique of the ideology of genomics as a lens for understanding life, the universe and everything.  With pieces like Kristof's gracing the New York Times opinion pages, we may be moving from the “pop gene” to the “pop brain.”

Photo credit: Credit: Mark Lythgoe & Chloe Hutton. Wellcome Images,

1 comment:

  1. Great post, Julie! Kristof's article proves, again, that the brain science is just used in the service of bolstering culturally determined (and class based) ideas of what constitutes "virtues" and a "vices" (Kristof's words). Notice how he lets us know he runs regularly by saying he might be an exercise addict - of course, he doesn't mean he's an addict addict. He's not one of those bad ones who struggles with their vices. His editorial just proves how uncritical "smart" people are with this "addiction is a brain disease" formulation. You can't have it both ways, as you point out, but of course he wants to. I imagine the last thing Kristof would argue is that he's not in control. If an editorial writer for the elite press doesn't have free will, then who does?