From reward mechanism to addiction, focus on the “instinct problem” that has plagued humans for thousands of years

From the smog floating in Humen to the flames of the two Opium Wars, the Chinese people have already endured the suffering caused by too many drugs. The hatred and preparedness for drugs are thus deeply embedded in the hearts of most people. When I discover a fascinating flower, I immediately think of whether it is a poppy; the thief enters the house and steals the drug, and resolutely surrenders and reports… Decades of drug control and education have given us an instinctive rejection and alertness to drugs. . However, addictive behaviors have not left us at this point. Soft drugs and new drugs are constantly appearing in various ways. The problems of behavioral addiction and non-material dependence are becoming more and more serious. These pose a threat to the health and safety of our society and people.

June 26 this year is the 33rd International Drug Control Day. On this serious day, we must not only pay close attention to drugs and soft drugs themselves, but also need to explore and focus on the underlying psychological and physiological mechanisms behind drug addiction and other addictive behaviors. Our healthy life builds a line of defense.

Behind Material Addiction and Non-Material Addiction——Reward Mechanism
Addiction refers to an individual who strongly or uncontrollably repeatedly desires to abuse a certain substance or carry out a certain activity. Although he knows that it will bring various adverse consequences to himself, he still cannot control the behavior. At present, the widely used classification method is to divide addiction into material addiction and non-material addiction, both of which are also called material dependence and non-material dependence.

Material dependence refers to a strong desire for material, repeated use to obtain pleasure, or to avoid a mental and physical pathological condition characterized by pain after drug withdrawal. Physiological dependence, also called physical dependence, refers to a pathological adaptation state caused by repeated medications, so that the need for drugs to continue to exist in the body, if it is interrupted, it will produce withdrawal syndrome, mainly manifested as increased tolerance and withdrawal symptom. Psychological dependence, also known as mental dependence, is a strong craving for drugs. Dependents expect to get a special pleasure after taking drugs, showing compulsive drug-seeking behavior. Mandatory drug-seeking behavior refers to the user’s impulsive or reckless use of drugs, which is a manifestation of self-control loss, not necessarily weak will or moral corruption.

“The mechanism behind addiction has been studied for many years, but it has not been revealed very clearly. The current relatively accepted view is that addiction is related to the reward mechanism in the brain. The current research on reward mechanism is mainly aimed at the limbic system, mainly including With the deepening of research, especially the application of functional magnetic resonance technology, the frontal lobe is also added to the structure such as the fiber nucleus and buckle back.” Director Li Yong said that the frontal lobe itself is responsible for advanced logical thinking and emotion Functional, so the current research has gradually answered why addiction affects psychology, emotions, etc. “At the physical and physiological level, it may be the reason why the prefrontal lobe is affected as a member of the limbic system.”

The reward center of the brain was first discovered accidentally by two McGill University psychologists. They used electrodes to stimulate rats to establish conditioned reflex experiments. They originally wanted to implant electrodes into the brainstem reticulum. Because the brain coordinate measuring instrument calculated a point error, the electrode was inserted into the compartment by mistake, causing the rat to press the rod crazy to apply electric shock to itself at a frequency of up to 100 times per minute. The rats seem to be never satisfied with this rewarding self-stimulation, and then these two psychologists and other scholars conducted repeated experiments under different circumstances to seek verification. The experiment found that the brain area related to this reward stimulus is the so-called reward system-the reward pathway, or it is called the happy center of the brain. You will find that the most important pleasure center of the brain is the limbic midbrain dopamine system. Most addictive drugs, such as heroin, cocaine, and amphetamine, have different mechanisms of action, but they all activate the dopamine system of the limbic midbrain and its associated brain regions, stimulating the release of dopamine. The main areas of this system are the ventral tegmental area and the nucleus accumbens in the marginal island. Addictive drugs can greatly increase dopamine levels in these two areas. In addition to this system, there are some brain regions related to the strengthening effect of addictive drugs, including structures such as prefrontal cortex, lateral hypothalamus, pan-amygdala, and hippocampus. “The main substances that play a role in the reward pathway are dopamine, a neurotransmitter that brings happiness, as well as gamma-aminobutyric acid (GABA), glutamatergic neurotransmitters, substance P (related to pain), Norepinephrine is also a substance in the reward pathway that is relatively concerned and recognized by everyone.”

Reward mechanism-towards human beings born for happiness
What is the reward mechanism? This is actually a psychophysiological mechanism of human relative origin. Anyone who is familiar with evolution and biology knows that it is an instinct for every organism to choose the right to survive. Even the simple structures of E. coli and Paramecium, they have shown enough features in favor of avoiding harm in the relevant experiments, will avoid enough stimulation to cause damage, will spontaneously seek food, and move towards a nutritious environment .

Curiosity is our instinct. Scientists will always ask a few more questions about what seems to be “natural and proper”: why human beings can survive, why races can continue to reproduce, why individuals and groups can continue to develop, etc. . The words “increasing profits and avoiding harm” seem to be simple, but behind them there are very complex and extremely sophisticated physiological and psychological mechanisms.

Seeking benefits and avoiding harm actually includes the two meanings of “seeking benefits” and “avoiding harm”. Among them, “harm avoidance” is relatively easier to understand. Taking humans as an example, in order to avoid accidental burns caused by the children touching the thermos, parents often use a thermos plug with temperature to lightly scald the child, so that the child builds up from the pain. The recognition that a thermos is dangerous, so that it is far away from the thermos, this is a typical “harm avoidance”, and the formation of this process includes physical pain signals, the brain’s processing of negative stimuli such as pain, feedback, and the establishment of conditioned reflex Wait. The concept of “increasing profits” is also very easy to understand. How to achieve “increasing profits” in the survival choices of living beings is the role of the reward mechanism.

The reason why human beings are derived from evolution. In the long process of survival and evolution, through repeated practice, we gradually put certain objects or things into categories that are meaningful and valuable to ourselves, while others are considered to be unhelpful or even harmful, thus Different reward values ​​are given to different objects or events. A more scientific definition of “reward” in the reward mechanism is a stimulus that can positively strengthen the frequency and intensity of certain behaviors. In short, if a thing is good for our survival, after it happens, the body will strengthen our memory through some mechanism, and then drive us to do this thing more in the future. When the brain anticipates that certain behaviors will bring benefits, it will secrete dopamine, activate reward pathways, and make people feel longed and expected. Once the human body has such feelings, it will actively perform such actions. In the long-term evolution, the brain controls the entire body in this way to fight for benefits, allowing us to win the cruel survival competition in nature.

The reward has three functions:

(1) Inducing learning and memory, individuals can predict the occurrence of reward events based on relevant factors.

(2) Induce motivational behaviors, including two stages of desire and completion.

(3) Emotional experience that causes pleasure.

Director Li Yong told us that the biggest role of the reward channel is to allow us to form positive feedback and memories of these things that are conducive to survival, prompting us to repeat this behavior next time, and this process has occurred countless times in our evolution. . The reward mechanism is to help individuals and populations screen, retain, and strengthen factors that can positively stimulate their survival and development, and form memories that can be continued in the future. Anything that is good for survival will inspire rewards.

When we are still a blank paper, we can always encounter those things that are beneficial to our survival. Millions of years ago, when the hominids hit a prey on the African grasslands, not only did hunger disappear after the rush, but the energy for survival was supplemented, but also a beautiful taste memory and an inexplicable pleasure, this matter Affirmed by the reward mechanism, our brain knows to repeat this behavior in the future. This “pleasure, joy, satisfaction” that drives our actions is the reward given to us by the reward channel. For example, the driving force of the mating behavior itself is sexual pleasure. Most creatures in the mating and after mating feel heartfelt satisfaction and happiness, and the ability to obtain mating rights is a reward for many animal competitions. These rewards will enable individuals to actively seek the next meal, mating, and pursuit of happiness and satisfaction. In neuropsychology, there are views that craving, driving, and rewarding are the biological motive forces for individual survival and population reproduction. Driven by this kind of drive, with constant competition and survival of the fittest, races can evolve better.

The reward mechanism does not only play a role in the low-level needs of “color, sex”, dietary stimulation, sexual stimulation, and addictive drug stimulation are called primary rewards, and are also unconditional rewards. Reinforcement behavior does not require learning , As long as it appears, it can activate the reward and form a reinforcement. Rewards such as cultural products, monetary stimuli, etc. obtained by connecting with primary rewards are called secondary rewards, and their strengthening behaviors need to be learned, that is, acquired.

Today, humans have evolved from physical competition to mental competition over millions of years. Many people think that learning is painful, anti-nature and anti-happiness, but in fact it is not, this is still a positive process that can activate the reward path. It is also human instinct to be curious about things. On the African grasslands, there are always a few tall figures in the primitive community. At that time, we looked up at the starry sky millions of years ago, thinking with doubt. And on the Polynesian coast, before the group of brown-skinned aborigines felled into wooden canoes and started a nine-death ocean voyage, they must be very curious about what is on the side of the sea-sky communication. Among the many factors that can drive them to dare to explore danger, the reward mechanism plays an important role.

Director Li Yong told us that today, when information acquisition becomes extremely convenient and safe, the act of acquiring knowledge driven by curiosity can also activate reward channels. For some people, acquiring knowledge will produce a very strong pleasure, and may even become addicted. The brain is very rational. It believes that even if the temporary behavior results are not satisfactory, if you continue to follow the insights gained by long-term evolution, you will eventually benefit. This set of mechanisms was very successful, at least until humans entered the modern civilized world.

At present, the biggest problem is that the difficulty, complexity, amount of information, and competitive pressure of education and learning make it difficult for learners to obtain sufficient positive feedback in the process, resulting in unrememberable, unable to learn, and not getting good scores. In fact, the punishment mechanism rather than the reward mechanism is at work, so many people’s aversion and resistance to learning are increasing day by day. But another kind of learning with the same mechanism can fully activate the reward mechanism, that is, the game. Playing games also requires learning, learning the operations, rules, complex combinations and matching, etc., but the game mechanics can often obtain positive feedback (such as game achievements, game wins, etc.) relatively easily after learning. In the cycle of “learning-positive feedback-learning”, the reward mechanism is constantly activated, so as to obtain happiness and continued motivation, and some people are addicted.

Roughly activate the reward mechanism-addiction
It is not difficult to see that the normal reward mechanism itself contains the risk of addiction. The so-called addiction is understood from the perspective of the reward mechanism, that is, there are some internal or external substances that directly bypass all other behaviors and directly stimulate the reward mechanism, which is similar to a “cheating behavior” to obtain happiness, and if Cheating can achieve an effect (direct activation of the reward channel to obtain pleasure), and we often fall into it and no longer work hard (stimulating the reward channel through hard work and other behaviors). In fact, human attempts to use addictive substances to violently activate reward mechanisms have a long history.

Roger Sullivan, an anthropologist at the University of Auckland in New Zealand, believes that “stimulating alkaloids such as nicotine and cocaine may be used by human ancestors to help overcome the difficult natural environment.” Around 4,000 years, people who settled in the two rivers discovered that poppies can bring endless joy. At that time, intelligent humans extracted substances from poppies that could make them happy. Indigenous Australians used extracts of therapeutic narcotic substances from the petri tree containing nicotine and a shrub called Duboisia hopwoodii to help them endure the pain of crossing the long desert. The Indians of South America chew coca leaves to endure the high-altitude hypoxic working environment.

In addition to wrestling with nature, another important use of psychotropic drugs in ancient times was religious activity tools. In primitive shamanism, voodoo religion, and various worships of nature and totem, it is not uncommon to use addictive substances to assist “psychic”. In 2013, the Xinjiang team of the Institute of Archaeology of the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences unearthed a unique tomb group in the Tashkurgan region of the Pamirs Plateau, about 2,500 years ago-the Gilzan Khal cemetery, which has obvious religious characteristics and ceremoniality Construction. The incineration in the unearthed wooden brazier was found to contain large amounts of cannabis-derived cannabidiol and tetrahydrocannabinol by-products. In the 19th century, there were records in the West that the Siberians consumed a poisonous mushroom called “parasol” to achieve the hallucinogenic effect. These shamans went into a coma by eating these mushrooms during the god-reducing activity. Many ethnic groups in Siberia and the Americas formed the “Mushroom Worship” because of the hallucinogenic effect of poisonous mushrooms. Most of these hallucinogenic substances can directly activate the reward mechanism, forming a sense of happiness and giving people the feeling of fluttering. Over time, chemical methods have become more and more advanced, and highly addictive substances have been extracted from these original “psychedelics”.

Director Li Yong introduced: “These addictive substances directly enter the human body and replace the normal neurotransmitters in our body to directly activate the relevant receptors and activate the reward mechanism.” The brain realizes that there are so many substances that stimulate receptors, The excitement caused is so strong that it will protect itself. Over time, the sensitivity of the cell receptors will decrease, and the number will also decrease. If the receptors on the cell surface decrease, it may form tolerance. This is why many drug addicts originally used drugs and eventually relied on injecting drugs. “Receptors for substances such as dopamine sometimes seem to be’spoiled.’ Compared to repeated small-dose stimulation, only greater stimulation can cause excitement.’

When the patient is addicted, the number and sensitivity of the receptors are reduced. The stimuli that can normally activate the reward pathway cannot activate this mechanism at all, and the only point of dopamine secreted is not enough to activate the receptor to stimulate the happy center. At this time, if you do not perform scientific withdrawal treatment, you will face a very terrifying situation-even the pleasure of sexual stimulation is not as good as the pleasure of addictive drugs.

In addition to drug addiction, behavioral addiction also has highly similar mechanisms, both of which are related to the abnormal activation of reward pathways. Non-substance addiction is the activation of the body’s system through the stimulation of behavior, secretion of opioids, γ-aminobutyric acid, etc. These are different from substance addiction. Substance addiction is that the stimulus directly enters the human body to highly activate the reward path, forming a strong stimulus, and it is also very difficult to withdraw; behavioral addiction is often gradually formed over a period of time, and the stimulant it forms is produced by the body itself. Source material, the difficulty of withdrawal is relatively lower. “The same part of treatment is that all drugs can be used, but substance-dependent withdrawal drugs are often more effective, and psycho-dependent drugs are mainly anti-depression, anti-anxiety, and anti-compulsion.” Director Li Yong introduced.

Be highly vigilant and watch out for addictive personality and drug addiction
High vigilance and precautions are the attitudes we should always maintain in the face of potential addiction threats. This is the protection of a healthy and beautiful life and a counterbalance to instinct mechanisms. Scholars have found in their research that certain psychological types or characteristics may have a high correlation with the psychological mechanism of addiction. “The exploration of addictive personality has a history of about 40 years, and the existence of addictive personality is now a more recognized fact.” Director Li Yong introduced.

Substance addicts may have the characteristics of anger, strong adventurous spirit, poor interpersonal relationships, relatively lonely and strong sense of loneliness. Some addicts also show that caring for themselves is far more than caring for others. Even if there are many problems, they lack the motivation to change and even resist change. The addicted personality sometimes shows that it is difficult to cope with their emotions, do not trust others, take defensive behaviors against others for a long time, and always think that others are easy to threaten themselves. At the same time, the researchers also found that people with addictive disorders have a very poor self-image.

“People who are easily addicted to behaviors, especially Internet addicted people, often do not find their place in reality, or do not get a sense of accomplishment, value, or fail to meet family expectations for a long time to receive positive feedback. In the future, they will seek these from the online world,” Director Li Yong said. “Other personality characteristics are similar to those of substance addicts.”

If you find that you or those around you have highly consistent personality traits, you need to be very vigilant. At least you must have a high degree of concern in your heart about whether you may be exposed to addictive substances and behaviors. If necessary, if some negative personality characteristics may cause trouble to yourself or others, you can also go to the clinical psychology department of a regular hospital or a regular psychological counselor for consultation and intervention, which may help to improve your living condition.

People with addicted personality need to be highly vigilant about the problem of drug addiction. People with such personality traits may be more prone to addiction than the general population when facing addictive drugs. Addictive drugs are mainly analgesic drugs with a certain addictive risk that may be used in the treatment of major trauma, surgery or other painful diseases, or sedation during the treatment of insomnia and other mental diseases Functional drugs. People with addicted personality may need to pay close attention to the problems of regular follow-up visits and standardized medication when applying these drugs to reduce the risk of addiction and avoid affecting life.

In contrast, we have paid more attention to the problem of substance addiction, but behavioral addiction has also been intensified in recent years, becoming a major social problem. “Actually, behavioral addiction is also mixed in some phenomena of substance addiction, such as Internet addiction, tobacco addiction, alcohol addiction, saltiness and sweetness, but the current diagnostic criteria are not uniform and there is controversy. Is this a disease? A question mark, the opinions of all parties are very different.” Director Li Yong told us that there are many difficulties in the intervention and treatment of behavior addiction. Many behaviors of behavior addiction are legal in their own right. Tobacco and alcohol are legal products. It is also difficult to break the law when playing games, but it is precisely because of the law that it is difficult for patients to truly get rid of the elements of addictive behavior, “So now the intervention of Internet addicted teenagers will allow them to be hospitalized for a period of time Let them completely detach from the online game, the effect is good, but often go back and forth after returning home.”

Director Li Yong strongly recommends that if you have a strong dependence on a certain behavior, such as smoking, drinking, long-term high-frequency use of certain programs, or if there are difficulties in self-control and separation, you should pay close attention to behavioral addiction For the possibility, you should receive psychological consultation or go to the clinical psychology department in time. Behavioral addiction has a better effect of intervention and disengagement at an early stage and a lesser degree, and it can also better reduce the adverse effects on life.