in ,

Addiction is now defined as a brain disorder, not a behavior problem

Addiction is a chronic brain disease (or is it?).

When experts bring out a new definition, an explanation supported by scientific research, reality is redefined. We all feel relieved that the problem is now better understood and will finally be handled appropriately.

Except, when I learned that addiction is being treated as a disease, I instinctively felt ill at ease.

That was when the American Society of Addiction Medicine (ASAM) released new definition of addiction in 2011 after a four-year process involving more than 80 experts, stating that addiction is a chronic brain disorder.

“At its core, addiction isn’t just a social problem or a moral problem or a criminal problem. It’s a brain problem whose behaviors manifest in all these other areas,” said Dr. Michael Miller, past president of ASAM said at the time. “Many behaviors driven by addiction are real problems and sometimes criminal acts. But the disease is about brains, not drugs. It’s about underlying neurology, not outward actions.”

This new slant on addition and addictive behaviors also meant that people with addictions would no longer be treated as third-rate citizens. This was a positive outcome of the new definition, as we shouldn’t blame or judge a person for a behavior we can observe but don’t have direct experience of.

Back to my uneasiness at addiction being described as a disease. What are the characteristics of disease, and does addiction comply – does addiction show the same characteristics?


“Addiction has very little in common with diseases.  It is a group of behaviors, not an illness on its own.  It cannot be explained by any disease process.”

(We just released a new eBook: The Art of Resilience: A Practical Guide to Developing Mental Toughness. We highlight 20 of the most resilient people in the world and break down what traits they have in common. We then equip you with 10 resilience-building tools that you can start using today–in your personal life or professional career. Check it out here.)

This is the viewpoint of Dr Lance Dodes a Training and Supervising Analyst Emeritus with the Boston Psychoanalytic Society and Institute and recently retired as an assistant clinical professor of psychiatry at Harvard Medical School.

At Psychology Today Dr Dodes analyzes: “In addiction there is no infectious agent (as in tuberculosis), no pathological biological process (as in diabetes), and no biologically degenerative condition (as in Alzheimer’s disease).  The only ‘disease-like’ aspect of addiction is that if people do not deal with it, their lives tend to get worse.”

ASAM based their definition of addiction on research that had shown that addiction affects the brain’s reward circuitry where memories of previous encounters with things like alcohol or drugs trigger craving for more of the same, leading to addictive behavior. The research also showed that the part of the brain that governs impulse control and judgment altered in the brains of addicts, resulting in the nonsensical pursuit of “rewards,” such as alcohol and other drugs.

That’s the point. There wasn’t a disease of the brain to begin with. The use substances like alcohol and drugs and engaging in behaviors like gambling or watching porn result in changes in the brain. When those changes are established, the person is addicted. After the changes in the brain, after the behavior.

So, if addiction is a disease, it’s a disease caused by human behavior.

NOW READ: Everything you think you know about addiction is wrong

It's your last chance...

… to enroll in Out of the Box, the online workshop by Rudá Iandê.

This is the most comprehensive and revolutionary program in personal development available today.

If you’ve tried new-age programs in spiritual development and found they have been ineffective… It’s not your fault.

It’s time to embrace an approach to personal development that helps you to align with your true nature. Your good side, your bad side. Your positive emotions and your negative emotions.

We’re so confident that Out of the Box will deliver an immediate impact on your life that we’re offering a 30-day money-back guarantee. No questions asked.


You’ve got nothing to lose and everything to gain by trying it out.

After today, you will have to sign up to a waiting list to enroll in Out of the Box.

Be the first to comment on this article at Ideapod Discussions

Written by Justin Brown

I'm the CEO and co-founder of Ideapod, a platform for people to connect around ideas. I'm passionate about people thinking for themselves, especially in an age of information overload.

What makes you attracted to someone

The reason you’re attracted to someone isn’t why you think

Here’s what happens when a kid leaves traditional education