With as much as we now know about substance abuse and addiction, there are still a lot of questions surrounding this disease. One of those widely-debated questions is the question of an addict’s free will.
What affects does dependency on something like alcohol or drugs have on an individual’s ability to make their own choices. With the effects on brain chemistry caused by drugs and alcohol, it’s safe to say that these substances do have some effect on the individual, but the question then becomes: what are those effects?
Addiction and an Addict’s Free Will
Let’s just quickly define “free will” so we all have a firm grasp of the topic. Free will is the idea of an individual having complete control over their own thoughts, actions, and decisions. Since the use, and eventually dependence, of drugs and alcohol can have clear, visible effects on clusters of “reward receptors” in the brain, these substances are affecting how the brain works.
If the brain is compromised, it would stand to reason that the free will of an individual user would be compromised as well. But that hasn’t been proven. It’s similar to the “nature vs. nurture” debate. Is someone born a certain way or are they a product of their environment? Who knows? It may still be debated long after we’re dead.
Scholars argue a belief in addiction means that you don’t believe in free will. Essentially, if a substance can take hold of you and control you’re decision-making, then free will doesn’t exist.
This idea that people, naturally, aren’t in full control of their human nature has dated back for centuries. It’s rooted in earlier beliefs of demonic possession and other supernatural forces.
This idea that people are not in control of their own decisions and actions has actually been supported by modern science. Although it’s rooted in ancient beliefs, today we see the idea of “reduced responsibility” for our actions coming up throughout society.
Modern society places responsibility for their actions onto external factors. Things like societal pressure, social factors, emotional distress, drugs, mental illness, and other factors. In addition, the scientific community tells individuals that their actions are a result of some event in their past which automatically disproves free will.
This is the modern view of how substance abuse affects an addict’s free will. From what we know about alcohol, drugs, and the recovery process, it’s widely-known that substance abuse is a disease/disorder. Doctors believe that these substances rob individuals of their ability to exercise free will.
Even if a user wants to quit drugs or alcohol, they can’t. If you, or someone you know, has been addicted to drugs or alcohol, you have seen this play out in your own life. When on drugs, a person’s brain chemistry is hijacked. Think of it in terms of cars. A person can be driving along fine, and all of the sudden addiction comes along. That’s when the drugs kick a person out of the driver’s seat and take the wheel.
You may have seen this behavior in yourself or others. It manifests itself as a singular focus on the drug of choice. Once the drug takes hold, every action a user takes is either to seek out or use their preferred substance.
How Does This Happen
All drugs have an effect on brain chemistry. When used, these drugs release surges of dopamine and other “feel good” chemicals into the brain. Prolonged surplus of these chemicals in certain parts of the brain leads to something known as receptor downregulation.
Receptor downregulation makes the brain less receptive to dopamine. Positive social and physical behaviors start to become irrelevant to the brain. When this process starts to unfold, more of the drug is needed to cause the same effect in the user. This is what’s known as dependence, the precursor to addiction.
This starts an endless cycle of more and more of the drug being required, as receptor downregulation gets worse and worse. Over time, as this goes on, portions of the brain are flooded with enough dopamine to start to significantly alter the chemistry of the brain.
Addiction and Habit
All of this leads up to the question: is drug abuse a conscious choice or a physical habit? The common thread among all drug use is that there is an immediate reward, followed by negative consequences, that can become significant with prolonged use. It also should be noted that the longer a user uses the drug, the more that needs to be used.
Psychiatrists say that an individual will use their free will to stop a behavior when the negative consequences begin to outweigh the positive. If that’s the case, then once more drugs are needed to get high and once more negative consequences start to occur than positive ones, shouldn’t an addict’s free will be able to trigger them to quit using?
In theory, yes. But we know enough to know that isn’t how it goes in the real world. Or do we? The American Psychiatric Association (APA) did a study. They selected a group of “addicts” based on their definition of addiction. They studied them and determined that they had a “propensity for lifelong drug use”. Most of these subject users in the study quit their addiction by age 42.
This was a sign of hope. That there is, in fact, some strength left to an addict’s free will.
What Does It All Mean
Yes, it’s true that substance abuse is a disease. However, it’s also true, based on scientific study, that addicts have more free will than we previously thought. Despite the grip drugs seemingly have on a person, any user still has the ability to say no to drugs.
It’s also true that drugs do, in fact, hijack the brain chemistry. But not to the point where users are mindless servants to their drug of choice. Addicts may be at the mercy of their disease at times, and the disease will affect their thoughts and actions, but in the end free will is not taken away.
For answers to more of your addiction questions, or to talk about recovery options, reach out to us at Just Believe Recovery Center. We’re always available to help.