Earlier this summer I went out into the garden and began removing the sucker stems from our tomato plants. Sucker stems are those small, pesky branches that grow at a 45 degree angle between the main stalk and large stems. While I’m not a botanist, I’m imagining that this pruning becomes an energy-channeling intervention that allows the tomato plant to concentrate its energy and maximally deploy nutrients in the service of actually growing tomatoes.
Well, it turns out that the brain has its own natural “sucker” pruning process. It’s called apoptosis (the second “p” is usually silent. Why scientists don’t simply remove that second “p” in the service of letter energy conservation, I have no idea). How the brain mostly determines which sucker stems in its network need to go away is pretty straightforward – if little traffic (action-potentials) ever travels down that road, best to remove it and “apop-tow” it off to the waste removal plant.
Pruning goes on constantly in the brain; renovation makes things happen. Learning is the antithesis of pruning. Learning grows new branches and new connections. Unlearning is what happens with apoptosis. Organic unlearning allows us to forget things non-essential for effective living and make space in the brain for new learning.
Learning How to Addict
Now here’s where things get really interesting.
Because of the way neuro- transmitters generate pleasure, the basic structure of the brain is biased towards addiction. For example, I have a “sweet tooth.” What that really means is that my brain and body are addicted to sugar. Being addicted to sugar, my brain fires action potentials over and over again across the same circuits all in the pursuit of satisfying my addiction. Repeatedly activating the same circuits builds and recruits additional wiring as I go online and order Goetze’s Chocolate Cremes, Wiley Wallabee Australian Black Licorice, or Chewy Original Caramels from The Lovely Candy Company. Yesterday, Emmybear, the Bernese Mountain Dog and I made a special trip up to the Goose Grocery to buy three Magnum Double Caramel Chocolate Ice Cream Bars. I didn’t share even a single bite with her. A large part of my week is spent researching and exploring new and novel ways to feed my addiction. That said, a powerful way to think about addiction is … accelerated learning!
Turns out there’s a significant opportunity cost in pursuing such extreme and focused learning called addiction, however. One way that cost shows up in my brain is in the form of apoptosis – all the circuits I’m no longer activating that I was previously – like interests in sports, or income generation, or relationship-building – all those circuits are beginning to weaken from disuse. Eventually, many of them will simply be cleared out of the network due to concentrated inactivity.
That’s the good news. Addiction concentrates the network much like clearing suckers grows robust tomato plants. But there’s even better news.
Mindset Makes It Happen
Once I get myself into a skillful Neuro-Sucro-Dental Treatment Program (and the crucial word here is skillful), and actually unravel my neural Sweet Tooth Network, now my brain has tons of open space, much like a developmentally delayed child possesses. My brain has now been set up to burst into full bloom and make huge developmental leaps that I most likely would never be otherwise ready for in this lifetime! That’s one reason so many drug network-remodeled addicts end up being involved in or running treatment programs. Had they not suffered from and surmounted the addiction, their developmental trajectory may very well have taken them off to corporate America fully satisfied with working in a cubicle somewhere.
If you want find out more about why addiction is not a disease or a moral failing, and about this developmental delayed-learning model of addiction, I wholeheartedly suggest you buy and read former drug addict neuroscientist Marc Lewis’s recently published book, The Biology of Desire. Feel free to start by checking out my Enchanted Loom review of it HERE.