Wednesday, November 2, 2011

Memoirs of an Addicted Brain

Lewis, M. (2011), Memoirs of an Addicted Brain. A neuroscientist examines his former life on drugs. Doubleday Canada,
ISBN 978-0-385-66925-2

Recently, I heard Dr. Marc Lewis interviewed on CBC. He is a neuroscientist from U of T, now living and teaching in Holland. He was talking about his book Memoirs of an Addicted Brain, not fundamentally about music and the brain although Lewis has an undergraduate degree in music from Berkeley and is an avid sitar player. His personal story of drug addiction and his unusual way of describing the brain’s chemistry compelled me to buy the book. I couldn't put it down. Here is the link to the CBC interview. 

In Memoirs of an Addicted Brain, Marc Lewis recounts his life as a drug addict. Originally from Toronto, he was shipped as a teenager to Boston to attend a boarding school. Homesick, bullied and missing the warmth and affection of his (extended) family, Lewis began to deal with his pain through cough syrup and alcohol.  He moved to Berkeley, California and became part of the LSD and heroin scene. Then, he joined his family in Malaysia and later Calcutta turning to opium. When he returned to Canada to become a psychologist, he stole drugs from medical clinics and was subsequently arrested. The book chronicles Lewis’ journey with drugs, addiction and healing. Lewis eventually recovered and became a professor of developmental psychology and then a researcher in neuroscience.

This extraordinary narrative is formatted around Lewis’ progressive drug addiction. Each chapter gives colourful and detailed explanation, intertwining  underlying emotional conditions with choices, as well as the prominent drug he was using at the time.  Lewis, an effective storyteller, distinguishes the effect of each drug on the brain: i.e. dextromethorphan hydrobromide (cough syrup), cannabinoids, LSD, PCP, heroin, opioids . The reader learns about brain structures, functions and locations in both healthy and drug-polluted brains. Lewis details healthy neurotransmission and then what happens when dopamine and serotonin are regulated  intrusively with addictive drugs. He relates the VALUE and THRUST feedback cycles, the neurological basis for cravings that can take hold in the mind and in the brain. Lewis shows the reader how the addict’s brain, fertilized by the emotional potency of repeated drug experiences, crystallizes synaptic connections, tightening, rigidifying, constraining the choices (Lewis, 2011).

Marc Lewis believes that addiction is a corrupted form of learning and warns that the extensive flexibility of our brains is not infinite. Synaptic sculpting, how learning occurs, uses up brain flexibility. He states that synaptic shaping is self-promoting and self-reinforcing and can be accelerated by strong emotions. Addictive drugs are addictive because of the strong emotions they release with meaning,  value and the narrowing in of how the world feels (Lewis, 2011).

Lewis admits that once addiction sets in, the brain never returns to the state that preceded it. He would counsel young people in this way:  Say no in a way that catches and takes hold. Pursue things that are real and have meaning rather than illusions and imagined values.

Memoirs of an Addicted Brain is a valuable resource for understanding neurochemistry and the impact of chemical invaders or mimics. Lewis gives a comprehensive yet accessible explanation of neurological structure, function and location. It was easy to visualize baselines and distortions because Lewis relayed the brain as a functioning neighbourhood with each part interrelated doing its specific task i.e. bridging, gate keeping and because he offered the neuroscientific information cumulatively within the context of his growing need for control.

It is a known fact that many musicians struggle with drug addictions. In fact, yesterday in the Ottawa Citizen, Phil Dwyer, saxophonist/pianist/composer candidly describes how he has struggled with serious addiction and mental health issues.

One friend who toured with a rock band for many years, admittedly said that the touring lifestyle got boring, predictable and there was lots of waiting around. Alcohol and drugs were a way of making it more bearable.  Music and drugs seem attached –at- the -hip in the rave culture. The dissociations or amplifications with reality may be potentiated through music. Certainly musicians of all genres have died of drug overdose.

Memoirs of an Addicted Brain makes me think about the relationship to music and addiction in another way. As music educators, how addicted do we become to “winning” the music competition. The craving feedback loop which is based on needing control and needing the fix may propel our choices – the wanting, the needing  for our own sake of feeling good and needing control - pushing children at a  young age to competitive, neurotic and even inappropriate goals without the care full nurturing, love, and magical experience of music’s aesthetic and spiritual draw. Do we become addicted to the applause of a performance?

Not for one moment did I need to point the finger at Lewis in his courageous autobiography. The neural activity spoke for itself and potentially lies in each one of us. Addiction is insidious, formed day by day, synaptic rut by synaptic rut,  with habits that are formed by personal choices, ultimately a result of what we deeply think about ourselves. We are all vulnerable.