maia-szalavitzMaia Szalavitz is a neuroscience journalist working to change the way we define drug addiction. In her Big Think video “A New Definition of Addiction Makes Rehab and Recovery More Effective,” Szalavitz proposes a new definition of addiction. She gets to the core psychological causes: addiction is compulsive behavior despite negative consequences.

Addiction is compulsive behavior despite negative consequences. And it’s really important to start by defining addiction because for a long time we really defined it very poorly,” says Szalavitz.

“I see addiction as a learning disorder. I see it that way because the biology of addiction unfolds in a developmental context over time. And that means that a huge amount of variables come into it. Not only genes and early environment, but also culture, your family, the way you interpret your own experience,” continues Szalavitz.

Szalavitz says drug abuse is a signal that the user has learned to associate positive emotions like love, connection, and security with the high of drug use.

Addiction and Learning

“Addiction is a learning disorder because it can’t occur without learning,” says Szalavitz. “You have to learn to associate the drug with some kind of relief or pleasure. And you need to do that repeatedly over time before you can become addicted. So the learning is involved where you learn that this works to fix a problem and you basically then fall in love with the substance.”

Szalavitz says that because addiction is a learning disorder, there is no cure-all. Although, certain treatments can work to calm cravings. She says a reevaluation of treatment is needed based on a new definition of addiction that defines the psychological causes of drug abuse.

View the full video here.

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Maia Szalavitz is a neuroscience journalist covering addiction and drugs. Szalavitz is a former cocaine and heroin addict herself. Today she writes for and is co-author of Born for Love: Why Empathy is Essential—and Endangered and The Boy Who Was Raised as a Dog. She is also the author of Help at Any Cost: How the Troubled-Teen Industry Cons Parents and Hurts Kids. Szalavitz also writes for a variety of publications including, the New York Times, VICE, and Marie Claire.