Sunday, October 9, 2011

Dopamine, Serotonin and Gilgamesh

Spent the whole of spin class this morning thinking about addiction and Gilgamesh. I just finished Marc Lewis’s gripping Memoir of an Addicted Brain, which goes beyond the usual downward-spiral story to include the latest findings from neuroscience.  Dr. Lewis is a developmental neuroscientist and professor of psychology, and his descriptions of how various substances affect the brain at the level of the neuron are very helpful in explaining why addicts continue to do that one thing that fucks them up and fucks them over, over and over.

Lewis shows how drugs “talk to the brain in its own language” – the language of chemicals.  What struck me as most tragic is the extreme limiting that happens in the brain as more and more neurons are recruited to focus on the one substance charged with providing pleasure, warmth, comfort, satisfaction and meaning.

Lewis writes, “That’s what’s so insidious, so toxic, about addiction. The neural traffic routes get more and more constrained, thanks to the sculpting -- the shaping and pruning – of synapses.... There are fewer routes to take with each replay of the fundamental story line.”

He points out that what happens in the brain then happens in the mind. “The brain doesn’t really parallel the mind,” he writes. “That would be a misnomer, a poetic approximation. It’s the other way around: the mind parallels the brain. The way the brain works – the biological laws of synaptic sculpting and neurochemical enhancement, each reinforcing the other – are what constrict the addict’s mind, his behaviour, his hopes, his dreams.”

So other possible pleasures become hollow, meaningless. All the other things that cause the neurotransmitters of motivation, comfort and joy to be released in a non-addicted brain, all the other things that create meaning and sparkle and connection in daily life, are gutted, drained, rendered inert.

A job well done. A friend well met. Finishing spin class without falling off the bike. A croissant. All the ordinary, unremarkable, untranslatable pleasures of daily life. All useless to the addict’s brain.   

In my myth class, we’re reading Stephen Mitchell’s excellent version of Gilgamesh. In his intense grief over the death of his dearest friend, Gilgamesh embarks on a desperate quest to find eternal life. He meets a tavern-keeper, Shiduri, who tells him his quest will fail and he will die, but she also tells him how to live:

Humans are born, they live, then they die,
that is the order that the gods have decreed.
But until the end comes, enjoy your life,
spend it in happiness, not despair.
Savor your food, make each of your days
a delight, bathe and anoint yourself,
wear bright clothes that are sparkling clean,
let music and dancing fill your house,
love the child who holds you by the hand,
and give your wife pleasure in your embrace.
That is the best way for a man to live.

Gilgamesh cannot hear the wisdom in her words because, like an addict, he is fixated on one (futile) thing. And in truth, the wisdom isn't in the saying or hearing of the words; it can only be felt in the living of them. 

I believe in the intelligence of evolution (not to be confused with Intelligent Design), in the three-billion-year wisdom of the cell, in all its crazy dazzling proliferations, its million billion trillion developments and orchestrations, and in its in-built limits, including senescence. Addiction, it seems, wrecks a life because it abuses the wisdom of the cell, stripping all the thousand potential connections and joys out of daily living, and reducing the possibility of pleasure to one thing that, really, no long provides any.

Works Cited (and highly recommended!)
Lewis, Marc. Memoirs of an Addicted Brain: A Neuroscientist Examines His Former Life on Drugs. Toronto: Random House Canada, 2011. Amazon. Web. 4 Oct. 2011

Mitchell, Stephen. Gilgamesh: A New English Version. New York: Free Press, 2004: 168-169. Print.

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