I’m a fan of Steven Novella. He’s a Professor of Neurology at Yale School of Medicine. He’s also a founder of The Skeptics Guide to the Universe. He’s also the co President of the New England Skeptics Society. He also frequently contributes to his Neurologica blog. I don’t know when he has time to sleep.
He has a blog entry on a recent study of neural connections. The study hi lights how brain connectivity changes when you learn and that reading and study can literally make you smarter. The converse is also true. Although addictions are not mentioned in the article the implications are clear. That learning negative habits increases the connections for negative behaviors. I suggest you read the blog.
Original article is here. Link shows abstract only. You hit a paywall if you want to read the whole thing.
Think about the pattern of neural development as addiction progresses. At first the connections aren’t strongly embedded and the stimulus to drink or use doesn’t have much effect on you. You may be as likely to deal with stress by dealing with the stress as opposed to drinking or using over it. As the neural connections progress it becomes second nature to deal with urges and stress by repeating your learned behavior of using. Another way to explain it is think of someone learning the piano. At first the playing is awkward and not very musical. As your brain connections improve with practice the music improves. Studies have shown that piano players have increased brain mass in the areas that control hand muscles and coordination. Their brain has literally changed to become piano players. With addiction your brain also changes, unfortunately in ways to make it more likely to get you to resort to your drug of choice for reward or coping in general.
Once an addiction develops your brain is changed, probably forever. If our theoretical pianist stops playing the piano the areas of the brain controlling his hands will shrink but probably never to pre piano lesson levels. He can never “unlearn” the piano completely. He could resume playing after years of not playing. At first he may not play well but he could probably get up to his former level of skill very quickly. I’m of the opinion that moderation is a poor choice for most everyone with an addiction. Those connections are very easy to restore to addiction level dysfunction.
While this may sound depressing I prefer the optimistic view that your brain has the capacity to normalize after you abstain from your drug of choice. You can’t “unlearn” your addiction but the connections that formed during your using years do weaken with time. Cravings lesson. Using dreams diminish. Urges get farther apart in time and are weaker. With time you may feel comfortable being in social events involving alcohol like weddings while these may be very challenging for the newcomer and often have to be avoided.
Hopefully you will replace the negative behaviors with positive ones. Good behavior can be learned and positive connections can be made. You can learn to cope with stress by responding in positive ways. Positive connections in your brain lead to positive connections with other people.