The Addicted Brain VS The Recovered Brain

In episode 250 of the Elevation Recovery Podcast, Chris Scott and Matt Finch discuss various studies on the neuroscience of alcohol and drug addiction, what it feels like to have an addicted brain, what it feels like to be in early recovery, and then recovered, and much more.

They share personal stories, insights, concepts, lessons, and motivational content to help others achieve and maintain addiction-free and healthy lives.  

Here are some ways to learn from this episode:

Chris Scott: Having the alcohol addiction, when other people have never had, "Oh, I don't understand, why can't you just have a couple just," that's what my friends always said. "Why can't you just control it?" Well, if they would've traded brains with me, then they would've been able to realize. They wouldn't have been able to articulate probably, but they would've been able to embody the brain of an alcohol-addicted person. They would've been like, "holy crap! Now I see why you can't just drink one." I'd drink one then two, then oh, the more I drank the more I just kept going. It was crazy.

Chris Scott: You no longer had that brain that you had back then. You're the same person, you technically have the same brain. But your brain is very different to the point that you've had periods since then, where you could entertain social drinking and make a choice to not want to do that, just because of its toxicity. So, then the question I think becomes, is there a removal of choice? I lost my power of choice. We hear people say that all the time. Do people actually lose their free will when they have addiction? And I think that's a very tricky question.

Announcer: Thanks for tuning into the Elevation Recovery Podcast. Your hook for addiction recovery strategies, posted by Chris Scott and Matt Finch.

Matt Finch: Welcome to Episode 250 of Elevation Recovery. That was Papaya, my name's Matt Finch. And I'm joined here with my friend and co-host Chris Scott. And we haven't done a session together in probably four weeks, somewhere around a month, so it feels really good to see you again man.

Chris Scott: Good to be back. Yeah, we caught up just without recording for about, I don't know, half an hour or more before this. I think we needed the Mastermind Call. But as we say, one of the reasons we started this podcast is to have the Mastermind Call with everyone else, or at least so everyone else can eavesdrop.

Chris Scott: I'm sure you have some cool topics in mind. We've found that we do best when we don't actually plan these episodes. So, I'm going to dive right into something that was actually shared by a prolific member of my online course, Total Alcohol Recovery 2.0. Obviously, I'll keep him anonymous. And it's a study that came out in February 2021, at University of Warwick. And basically what they found is that alcohol inhibits a part of the brain called the dPAG that processes adverse situations.

Chris Scott: So, in the immediate moment when you drink, your brain can't figure out that there are negative signals that should be responding to. That kind of makes sense intuitively for anyone who's struggled with alcohol addiction you have, or even someone who hasn't and has simply been drunk before. You might not notice the organ toxicity or the risks that you're putting yourself in. Risks of danger maybe, when you're drinking everything seems just fine. And yet at the same time, they found that a person who has alcohol addiction in this study has an overexcited dPAG, that same area of the brain that should be processing adverse situations. That they feel like they're in an adverse or negative or unpleasant situation that they need to escape by turning to alcohol. And so, that's really interesting, it's possible that compulsive drinking is caused by that alcohol inhibiting, that area of the brain.

Chris Scott: So, you just keep drinking. And then, impulsive drinking according to that study could be caused by the hyperactivity of that region in the absence of alcohol. I've taken a little bit of liberty with interpretation here, anyone who wants to look at that study, you can find it, it's called Neural roots/origins of alcoholism identified. There are all sorts of biochemical processes inherent in alcohol addiction and addiction generally. I don't think we're ever going to find the end all be all. I've done videos I think that are on YouTube about how inflammation is at the root of addiction. That can simultaneously be true, while we explore various brain regions involved in impulsive or compulsive drinking. A lot of people ask me, "is there a gene that you think will identify a gene that's responsible for the development of alcohol addiction?"

Chris Scott: I think the answer is no. It's probably a combination as with most other traits. Whether it's a disease state or I guess there are certain diseases that can be tied to one gene, but most of the time behavioral issues or even physical traits tend to be the product of at least several different genes. And sometimes thousands or tens of thousands so, I think we'll find genetic correlations. We might find genetic correlations that have something to do with the dPAG area of the brain, which I should mention this region of the brain...

Matt Finch: It's almost like you're setting me up to start going into some deep brain processes, and well, this does that. And while I could go there, what I was thinking about when you were relaying the kind of concept of that study was how many bad decisions I made under the influence of alcohol. Was how many dangerous situations I got myself into and how there was this magical spot where I was just buzzed enough to not make bad decisions, and be able to get away from danger if it was near and be able to talk to girls in a smooth way and be able to have my wits mostly about me. Then there was this kind of invisible line that I would cross. And it almost always happened when I drank vodka or whiskey, especially with Jack Daniels whiskey. At a certain point, I'd crossed this line, and whiskey crossed it the quickest, all bets were off.

Matt Finch: I would make the worst decisions. I would get into some of the most dangerous situations, I should write a article sometime on some of the dangerous situations. One time I was in Mexico camping with my buddies, well we went down there a lot, and we'd go surf a bunch and we'd party at night, sleep at the campground. And this one time I was probably around 23, this is a long time ago. I ended up making friends with some dude at a bar in Tijuana, that was giving me all these free drink tickets and befriending me. He's like, "Hey man, come on let's go smoke some meth." Methamphetamines, well I guess in Tijuana it's like ice, that's really pure form. So, I'm going with him, if I had a few beers in me I wouldn't have said yes to that shit, are you kidding me?

Matt Finch: I would put myself in such dangerous situations and not even realize that they were dangerous. Sober, there's no way I would've done that. All of a sudden alcohol started to change my brain physiology and biochemistry so much that it sounds like a really good idea and really safe to go with some stranger behind the alley, behind the bar to go do meth. Then we're starting to get into this big, huge white Toyota Tundra four-door lifted, it was probably brand new or close to it. And he's like, "oh, I don't got my keys," and he is trying to break into it. Then all of a sudden, I hear from behind us, "do you want to die in Mexico?" Then I turned around and there was these dudes, it was like a gang of eight or nine or 10 dudes, a bunch of guys. And then that guy started running, he turned around, the guy I was with, and he bolted.

Matt Finch: Chris, I never ran that fast in my entire life. I turned around. Ran after the same direction he was going. It was all a blur, it was like run, run, run, turning around streets, I'm following him. At one point I Spidermanned over this big, huge wall. Somehow, I was so afraid for my life that I jumped up and just grabbed up and pulled up and made it across this wall. And we found my buddy Nick's truck, and so luckily it was unlocked. And then we went, and we hid in the back of his truck, it was a camper shell on top of it. And I was like, "what the hell? That wasn't your truck." He was trying to steal a truck with me, and we were going to go smoke ice in this stolen truck.

Matt Finch: That's just one of the situations. Those guys would've killed this dude. They had OB or they had Longhorn tattoos, those guys were gnarly. And so, there's just been so many of those situations.

Matt Finch: Alcohol out of all the drugs, all the addictive substances I've tried in combinations, nothing came close to how stupid I acted on high-dose alcohol. How many dangerous situations I'd get into, unprotected sex with people that I really shouldn't have been having sex with, in the first place. Hanging out with people that wander, steal a truck in Tijuana. Way other things, downhill skateboarding thinking I could do it. This crazy hell, my friends are like, "don't do it, don't do it." But I'm just so hammered drunk, "oh, I can do it. I can do it," then I fractured my scaphoid. Ad Infinitum, that list goes on and on.

Matt Finch: There's another brain research that probably came out the same time, or maybe around the beginning of 2021. Where they tested on mice, they found something called the high-sensation seeking trait. Well, they found it and that's what they named it. They were able to breed these mice, and then breed the offspring of those mice, several rounds. Until they had these rats that had this part of their brain, which they termed the high-sensation seeking trait. And the moral of that study was that these rats would take risks, more frequent risks, and they would invest more time and energy, and they'd get into more dangerous stuff to get some type of a high-sensation. When I talked about this when, I think it was probably the first time I interviewed Coach Zach, and we are talking about that, how wow, no wonder if humans have this trait too, we'll do more, invest more time, money and energy, get into more dangerous situations to get some type of a high- sensation.

Matt Finch: Whether it's from substances or a different behavior. Promiscuity, gambling, shopping, mafia-type stuff where you're going, and gang members where they got their guns and killing people and robbing places. Those all give you a high-sensation so it's an area of our brain that some people have that activated way more. And you and I are just talking about just a tiny infinitesimal amount of the different brain regions that can go off, or that do go off. That can be more hyperactive in some people or not exist or be less hype or be very downregulated in certain individuals. See we're all just looking at the people's behavior, "Oh, they should be able to control their drinking." "Oh, why can't you stop smoking or stop using this drug?"

Matt Finch: Meanwhile, nobody is looking at the different comparisons of people's brains. I used to tell people that we're family members of people that have alcoholism or drug addiction that you would really understand them if you spent 24 hours switching brains with them. If there was a procedure or a magic trick where you could switch brains with somebody, then you would know totally 100% what it's like to have that brain. Then people would be not judging as much, they'd be like, "Oh, I finally understand it." Because you and I know having that alcohol addiction when other people have never had a, "Oh, I don't understand why can't you just have a couple, just..." That's what my friends always said, "Why can't you just control it?"

Matt Finch: Well, if they would've traded brains with me, then they would've been able to realize. They wouldn't have been able to articulate probably, but they would've been able to embody the brain of an alcohol-addicted person. They would've been like, "Holy crap! Now I see why you can't just drink one." I drank one, then two, then oh the more I drank, the more I just kept going. It was like crazy, the hypoglycemia, all those brain things going on, just so many different things. Biopsychosocial, environmental, spiritual elements, and the brains probably, you could spend your whole life just thinking about that. Then there's things like childhood trauma and stressful situations in life and low self-esteem, your personality. It's just really interesting and complex. But the brain obviously is probably the biggest part.

Chris Scott: What's interesting to me is that you no longer have that brain that you had back then. You're the same person, you technically have the same brain. But your brain is very different to the point that you've had periods since then, where you could entertain social drinking, and make a choice to not want to do that just because of its toxicity.

Chris Scott: Then the question I think becomes, is there a removal of choice? I lost my power of choice. We hear people say that all the time, "Do people actually lose their free will when they have addiction?" And I think that's a very tricky question. My answer to it would be no. Having gone through it, having been someone who drank a handle of vodka per day. Could I have quit during that point in time? Yes. Is the looming threat of withdrawal and the pleasure-pain principle that is inherent to our nature and really all conscious entities? Is that stacked against you, hardcore in addiction? Absolutely.

Chris Scott: I think we view reality through the lens of our biochemistry and through the lens of our belief systems. And when I had that brain, I had a brain that had neural pathways that associated alcohol with every possible fulfilling or pleasurable or rewarding experience. And I couldn't imagine any of those things without alcohol, so that's my belief system. And my neural pathways caused by repetition, emotional intensity, stacked against me. And of course, I had imbalances in certain neurochemicals. Probably in the part of the brain that study mentions, the dPAG, which I had not heard before because I'm not a neuroscientist. But, actually, that study sounds similar to the GABA glutamate imbalance, where you have an excess of glutamate that builds up because glutamate as a stress chemical is suppressed by alcohol, at least temporarily.

Chris Scott: Then you get a glutamate rebound and glutamate increasing electrical activity in the brain within several hours for people who are severely addicted. Giving you that panic state, and then the negative sense of urgency brings you to taking the alcohol. The alcohol tilts the seesaw, so to speak towards the GABA activity, GABA, being the calming neurotransmitter. I would assume that process which we've known for some time is occurring in that part of the brain, I don't know that for sure. But anyway, back to getting out of the weeds here, the question is, does that mean you're on automate time? If that's the state of your brain, does it mean that you have any free will? Do you have 95% of the free will? 50%, 5%, or is it 100%? I don't know, I think there's probably a spectrum to which the pain and unimaginability or seeming untenability of not drinking is a factor for people.

Chris Scott: And I guess in simpler terms that means that someone who truly wants to drink knows nothing except drinking and experiences negative consequences when they don't drink. In other words, withdrawal is going to be strongly likely on average to drink. They might look like an automaton, they might feel like an automaton, they might believe that they're an automaton. But at the same time, the beautiful thing about being a human being is that you do have free will, even if it's obscured by other biochemical factors. Now that doesn't mean that you can use free will to spontaneously heal from something like diabetes or cancer. Although the power of the mind, I think is still an untapped resource, even for seemingly incurable conditions. But with anything with its roots and behavior such as addiction, I think that the mind is an extremely powerful thing in conjunction with concrete strategies that actually help.

Chris Scott: So, if you can use nutrient repair to help fix that biochemical imbalance to help you get some time under your belt and create a stable baseline without engaging in the addiction, or at least to taper down and engage in it less. Then you can free up more mental clarity to figure out what the additional missing links are in your recovery program or in your life, depending on how you want to frame it. And you can get yourself out of the problem out of that predicament out of that brain so to speak. To develop a whole new fully rewired brain within some amount of time, for some people maybe it's months for other people it's probably years.

Chris Scott: For you and I, it probably took several years before a brain scan would've shared that we truly healed from our addictions. But we can say that the extent of brain damage, and I don't mean that in a clinical sense, but all of those neural pathways that are associated with engaging in addiction or with withdrawal and biochemical imbalances in the brain, you can fix that and it's not something that you need to be stuck with forever.

Chris Scott: And if you're in that trap that you or I were once in where you're making bad decisions and you experience withdrawal when you try to quit. And other people don't understand what it's like to be you, then you still have the power to make a change and you can make it in an instant. And of course, I do know of certain people who in the middle of a severe addiction had decided to quit spontaneously, cold turkey, and they were done forever. And they went through a lot of pain, I don't recommend that approach. But they went through a lot of pain in order to make that decision, and of course, they would've had a much easier time if they'd had nutrient repair targeted supplementation. If they had gone through the biopsychosocial spiritual pillars and created new routines for themselves, enlisted support, worked on all sorts of things that we talk about all the time.

Chris Scott: Some people didn't do that though. And they still made the change, which means, I think it's more of a pain-pleasure principle stacked against you than a literal removal of free will.

Matt Finch: Yeah. The pain-pleasure principle aspect of it is just the more someone learns about that, and kind of uses that framework to link up in their brain. The behaviors, whether it's drinking or all their different behaviors to just really, you start to realize, "Whoa," the pain-pleasure principle is totally running all of our lives. We're so complicated, we're so complex when you divide us down to the smallest piece, that pain-pleasure principle is gigantic, and there's numerical scoring for that.

Matt Finch: What you are talking about too. You and I did lifestyle strategies. Basically, we screwed up our brain because of the lifestyles we were living. Then we repaired and rewired and reformed our brain and got rid of those acute dysfunctions like withdrawal. And then the chronic dysfunctions that were residual. First, the neurotransmitters and glutamate balance, Dopamine, all that stuff. And then over time, the actual neural pathways for behavior, the habit wiring loops.

Matt Finch: Basically, what you're saying is success beget success. So, at the beginning it was hard because we didn't have a lot of wins under our belt, we had a lot of work to do. If you look at people like old-timers in AA, not all of them a 100%. But most of them, people that have 20 years sober clean, 30 years, even 10, 15 years. For most of them, it's really easy to stay sober. Russell Brand, one of my favorite YouTubers he just celebrated, it was either, yesterday, I think it was this morning. He posted a video on his second channel Awakening with Russell. Celebrating, I think it was 19 years sober birthday, 19 years. And that guy used to be very addicted, especially when he first got into fame and some notoriety, he is a good-looking guy he's really intelligent, and he was funny, and then he was in movies.

Matt Finch: So, he's a completely different person than he was even when he was seven years clean and sober. Because when I first saw him Forgetting Sarah Marshall, I think that was the first movie I ever saw him in. And then Get Him to the Greek, I didn't really think too much of him. I didn't like his stand-up comedy at all back then. I didn't think he was that good of an actor. Nowadays, I'm like a raving Russell Brand fan. When he would talk about addiction recovery, 13 years ago. Something like that, even 10 years ago and I was like, "that guy doesn't know what he's talking about." It's just all this mainstream recovery modalities. But now when he talks about it, I listen man, he's really intelligent. And he has just rewired his brain so much and he has learned so much, he's read so many books, interviewed probably hundreds of people. That just shows you right there, at the beginning, it can be really hard for people. And that's why most people put it off or don't succeed or don't succeed in the long run.

Matt Finch: But there's a magical point in each person's life when they get to that place where they're rewired and they've created a new lifestyle, a new identity. They're into constant and never-ending improvement and they just really have things kind of figured out. From that point, there's no need to ever be a addiction relapse vulnerability ever again. You've developed this addiction immune system like this total anti relapse to where you don't need to worry about relapse prevention because you've built up an identity and a brain that prevents all that stuff.

Matt Finch: So instead of like, "Oh, it's a lifelong disease, it's going to be incurable. But as long as I stay close to this program, God willing, I can make it." That's a really shitty way to live in my opinion, at least for me. So, Russell brand, I can't imagine that he would ever go back to drugs and alcohol because the dudes just completely different than how he used to be. One other thing I wanted to say was some people in AA or NA, and this is one of the things you were leading to Chris. Some people, they're not focusing on any different lifestyle strategies over the span of time. They just lose all desire to drink or to use drugs or both one guy that I used to see at the AA meetings. He was my first sponsor's sponsor, I guess that's called my grand sponsor, he passed away a few years ago, but he was pretty old.

Matt Finch: Anyways, he started to go to AA decades ago and he said that from the very first meeting he ever went to, when they were all praying together, they were praying very powerfully. He said, God, came into his heart and totally made him lose all desire to drink, all desire to use drugs. And he said from that day forward, he never had any craving, never had any desire to use, he was like a changed person. That's a powerful experience. And I've heard other people maybe not as powerful as his, but a lot of clients that I've had said that they'd be praying with their family or praying with their wife for help. Then they'd find my website or find my YouTube channel or something. And so, there's all sorts of routes out this whether people want to do the exercise hierarchy of recovery route.

Matt Finch: Some people just have, their Christians or their Muslims or they're just spiritual that just something happens to them. It changes how they look at the substance and all of a sudden, they don't want to do it anymore. It happens to people, some people I know have quit smoking cigarettes like that. Back in the day, just one day I was just like, "Screw this, what am I doing? This is nasty." Then I'd just stop, just like that, never have a craving to use ever again.

Chris Scott: You know, I think we must have the most open-ended and a open-minded approach towards addiction. I was just thinking if someone were trying to sum up our approach or be like, "don't go to AA, go to AA and pray," "take the Sinclair method, try Ayahuasca." I guess the centerpiece would be that we believe that nutrient repair is a widely ignored, and we don't just believe that, but it is a widely ignored and effective solution for a lot of people that should hopefully play a role for more people going forward to the extent that this information gets out. And it's not just nutrient repairs, you mentioned it's the biochemical, and clearly, that's in a biochemical pillar, but psychological, social, spiritual pillars. And there's a lot of synergy between things that work, but everyone's different.

Chris Scott: Alcohol use disorder is a spectrum and I myself was at different points on the spectrum at different times. I was a binge drinker in college, I was a partier. I was a self-styled wine connoisseur for a little while when I worked down Wall Street in New York. And then I was a, let's switch to vodka so I can get back in shape. And then all of a sudden, it's just somehow, I got up to drinking about two-fifths of vodka every single day. And I won't even say night because I broke my 5:00 PM rule and I would have to drink during the day. My hands would shake, and see I said I would have to drink. And the truth is I would have to drink in order to not suffer from debilitating withdrawal symptoms. I didn't have to drink though.

Chris Scott: I probably would've argued that point, my past self would argue that with me now. But I also didn't see any reason to not drink. I was kind of a nihilist, and that was probably contributed to by progressively deteriorating brain balance. And so, for people to find something spiritually that they can believe in, I think that's a solution to the nihilism. And when you fill your soul so to speak with an empowering belief system, you can absolutely rearrange things. Probably on a quantum level that we don't even fully understand, that would affect your physical desires, your cravings, your priorities, your values. People have psychic change. They have spiritual renaissances all the time. I shouldn't say all the time, for the average person who has one, it's probably a once in a lifetime, maybe twice in a lifetime at most experience. I had a bit of that after I quit drinking and it was almost spontaneous.

Chris Scott: I talk sometimes about sitting in the chapel, this non-denominational chapel, and the inpatient rehab where I spent some time. And just suddenly when I walked in there, I was still in a plane of existence where I felt like things were mostly not okay. And something inexplicable happened, and there was a beam of light coming through a stained-glass window. Then nothing, there was no design even, there was blue and red and then white or clear stain-glassed around it. And I was just kind of fixated on the light, something happened, I was filled with hope. And by the time I walked out, I was on a different plane of existence where things were basically going to be okay. It didn't mean that I didn't still have things to worry about or to do, but I felt an inner calm or a peace that I'd never felt before that.

Matt Finch: Yeah, science. Our modern-day science can only explain so much, but it can't explain things like when you have synchronicities or signs, feelings, and some things that are so inexplicable. But you know, "Oh, there's some kind of rhyme or reason to this, the metaphysical aspect of it," some people have those experiences. Some people it's like they have them on a day-to-day basis, it just always happening to them. I had a bunch of spiritual experiences, not like my grand sponsor's one at all. But more of the garden variety as they like to say in AA, and they were just kind of smaller. But when I first went to AA, those first 90 and 90, 90 meetings and 90 days I was on the pink cloud phenomenon. I was getting all sorts of spiritual signs and synchronicities, intuitions, feelings. You'd literally see a sign that would say something when you were just thinking about something like that.

Matt Finch: And it's almost like this answer from the universe or God or the programming of the quantum field. And it was just like, "Whoa," that stuff got me through those first 90 days. And of course, I didn't last much longer than 120 days. But it was because I wasn't supposed to keep going, that wasn't my path. I really needed to experience lots of drinking and lots of drug-using. I wasn't done experiencing all that. I didn't have to, but it seemed like my path just, I was always following my intuition in life. I was following what it felt like I was supposed to do. And it led me to awesome things, and it was dangerous. But now look at the benefits of both you and I drinking, and for me drinking and drugs. Now we have this really cool life, and we never have to go back there again. So it's like "We got it over with, we experienced all those hardcore experiences, and now it's like something cool," and that happens with a lot of people.

Matt Finch: When I just interviewed Dr. Toni Camacho on one of the two episodes ago, she went through so much adrenal fatigue and exhaustion, and autoimmune disorders. Early 2000 her body, she broke down, she couldn't even, she was too tired to watch TV even, for I think going on a year. Too tired to even watch a movie because it would just, it would be too energizing for her. That's really sick man, that is messed up. Western medicine, traditional medicine didn't help her at all, no matter what different things she tried. That's when she found my parents' herb school and she went and learned her biology and she went and became a success coach with Jack Canfield and changed her beliefs and her thoughts.

Matt Finch: Developed systems, she learned aromatherapy, herbology, nutrition, energy healing Reiki. So now she's, she's like a Ph.D. She's got a Doctorate in Psychology, tons of certifications and herbology and psychology and nutrition and success coaching. Now she's got this thriving practice where she helps people one-on-one with mostly herbs, nutrition and counseling, and coaching. And she's got her own line of herbal homemade products, which look phenomenal due to her herbal tinctures and powders and her flower essences and essential oils, and her topical balms and drinks, she's got a huge line.

Matt Finch: So, it really seems like a lot of people in life that have done that, gone through so many challenging things. Then made it their life's purpose and mission to help other people overcome the same challenge that they overcame. But almost seems that's kind of like a soul blueprint for people like it. Just so many people do it.

Author

  • Chris Scott founded Fit Recovery in 2014 to help people from around the world dominate alcohol dependence and rebuild their lives from scratch. A former investment banker, he recovered from alcohol dependence using cutting-edge methods that integrate nutrition, physiology, and behavioral change. Today, Chris is an Alcohol Recovery Coach and the creator of an online course called Total Alcohol Recovery 2.0.

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