By Bob Young
The Seattle Times
WWR Article Summary (tl;dr) Maia Szalavitz latest book, “Unbroken Brain,” has attracted attention for arguing that addiction is more like a learning disorder than a disease or sin and that treatment approaches haven’t caught up with research.
Maia Szalavitz first tried cocaine at 17, in Jerry Garcia’s hotel room, then became addicted to cocaine and heroin in her late teens and early 20s. She stopped using unprescribed drugs in 1988.
For nearly 30 years, she has made a career reporting on neuroscience, drugs and addiction. Her work has appeared in TIME, Vice and The New York Times.
Her latest book, “Unbroken Brain,” has attracted attention for arguing that addiction is more like a learning disorder than a disease or sin and that treatment approaches haven’t caught up with research.
As opioid-related deaths rise, we talked with Szalavitz before she spoke at the annual conference of the National Council for Behavioral Health in Seattle last week.
Q: Why do you say addiction is more like a learning or developmental disorder than a moral failing?
A: Learning disorders have a couple characteristics; one is they obviously involve learning. And addiction is defined as compulsive behavior despite negative consequences. Negative consequences is synonymous with punishment. It basically means you’re failing to learn from punishment. So that is a problem with learning. The other thing that happens in learning disorders, they’re usually restricted to a specific sort of brain circuit.
Q: Why are young people more vulnerable to addiction?
A: Developmental disorders characteristically appear at a certain time in life. Schizophrenia tends to come on in early adulthood and late adolescence. Addiction, similarly adolescence and early adulthood. This tells us something about what circuitry is being affected.
In this instance, it’s the circuitry that motivates us to survive and reproduce. Basically, addiction is love gone awry. You fall in love with a drug or activity rather than a person. That is the basis of why I think it’s a learning disorder. It happens because 90 percent of addiction starts in adolescence or your early 20s.