addiction as a learning disorder

In the current socio-political landscape, drug addiction is a topic in which people from all walks of life can find common ground. It’s still somewhat taboo of a topic, but thanks to the prescription pill and heroin epidemic, the whole country is being forced to abandon its cognitive dissonance and face the truth head-on: that this is everyone’s problem. Many lawmakers and politicians have been working feverishly to institute new legislation that could help curb the addiction crises. Meanwhile, a much larger debate looms on the horizon: How should we view the complex nature of addiction as a whole? Many believe it should be included as a learning disorder.


Do we learn to be addicted?

It could be argued that, in order to stay addicted, you have to fail to learn your lesson again and again. You also have to learn some wrong lessons, such as that drugs/alcohol actually make you happier, healthier, or more pleasant of a person. As substance abuse unfolds, the brain undergoes a maturation process. People respond to formative experiences. 90% of all addictions begin during youth or young-adulthood—a period of dramatic evolution in the brain’s learning-functions.

The concept of ‘addiction’ as a ‘learning disorder’ has been around for a long time. ‘Social learning theory,’ which states that behavior is learned from the environment through observation, has been used and applied to behavioral disorders, like addiction, for many years.

There are two fundamental ways in which we learn behavior, according to this theory: classic conditioning and operant. The former occurs with the pairing of pleasure and substances. In contrast, Operant conditioning is based on a system of rewards and punishments. The upside of operant conditioning is that it can be spun positively, in treatment, by rewarding patients for positive behavior. There’s also rational choice theory—a process of decision-making and learning based on framing the problem or situation, assigning value to various options or outcomes, and then choosing the best option. The dopamine system plays a large part in this process; this “feel-good” chemical is what bridges the gap between associations and feelings of pleasure.

When something unexpected occurs, that’s when learning takes place and our reward system gets the message that the old rules don’t apply, that it may be time to learn a new association. Delving further into the concept of addiction as a learning disorder seems a worthy endeavor when it comes to improving policies.  It may also play an important role in addiction counseling and ongoing recovery as former addicts un-learn old operating modes and learn new ways to cope with triggers.


Just as negative behaviors can be learned, so can positive ones.

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