Interview With an Addicted Brain - Page 3

By Walter Armstrong 05/23/12

Marc Lewis spent his youth experimenting with every drug he could find. Once clean, he became a neuroscientist specializing in addicted brains. His memoir—just out—has been hailed as an instant classic.

Author Marc Lewis photo via

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You appear to have been drawn to meditation with a curiosity about your mind similar to the way you were drawn to experimenting with drugs. Did you use meditation to help recover from drug use?

Meditation, like drugs, was very much a part of the culture when I was coming of age, and it also involved entering a certain mental state that I could observe myself experiencing. But meditation didn’t work for me as a way to deal with the problems that were driving me to do drugs, though it may have proved helpful in extending the periods of time when I was trying not to use drugs.

I am much more disciplined about meditation now than I was then. I do what’s called insight meditation. I find it very helpful—it is centering, I feel at peace, I can accept all those spurts of negative emotion better.

You write about the toxicity of addiction and its effect on the brain, which you refer to as “the unique fatalism of plasticity lost”? What do you mean?

Learning has a shape to it, and it leads somewhere; addiction sets in motion the same process that leads nowhere.

By toxicity, I mean not the toxins and other harmful properties in the drug itself but the toxic consequences it has for brain mechanisms due to the simple fact that it has a direct, unmediated effect. Alcohol and drugs cause a kind of supercharged addiction, at least compared to addictions associated with sex or gambling. 

Drugs cause your brain to lose its plasticity in that the many synaptic pathways that have been laid down for a wide range of goal-seeking behavior converge on the one goal of getting high. You reduce the multiplicity of rewards to one synaptic configuration, and this becomes a progressive feedback loop that entrenches itself. Addicts struggle like crazy to escape from this “unique fatalism of plasticity lost”—they struggle much harder than people who don’t go through this could ever imagine—and many of them succeed and do recover.

You also write, “Addiction is just a corrupted form of learning.” Could you expand on that?

There is a debate about what addiction is: Is it a disease? Is it a choice? I view it as an accelerated process of learning, and I think using learning as the metaphor to understand it can be very useful. It uses all the same brain mechanisms as learning—from the most fundamental to the most advanced—but whereas learning has a shape to it, and it leads somewhere, addiction sets in motion a learning process that leads nowhere. It is just self-reinforcing with no object but itself.

What are the permanent “scars”—if any—on your brain and your mind as a result of your years of drug use?

I don’t think I have any permanent damage because the brain has a remarkable ability to repair itself. But there was psychological damage, at least in the sense that after a few years, I got into a second marriage for the wrong reasons—because I was carrying a burden of guilt about having been addicted for so long and wanted to compensate by becoming a “responsible” person.

How do you now incorporate that period of drug use into who you are today? What are the costs and benefits?

I don’t like to think of my years of addiction as a waste. During those 10 or 12 years I wasn’t only doing drugs—I explored life, I traveled, I studied and worked, sometimes successfully, other times not so much. Anyway I built up my mental muscle because given that I was doing my best to function at a fairly high level while on lots of drugs, the mountain I had to climb every day was a lot higher than most mountains. That helped me to know my own strengths and weaknesses.

I don’t think of my years of addiction as a waste. I built up my mental muscle; I became a more open person.

I also think I am a more wide open person—maybe “blown open” would be more accurate—than many people. I am not very judgmental, I listen to other people, and I don’t expect them to be a certain way. 

You still drink alcohol. How are you able to moderate your use? 

Actually I’m looking forward to having a scotch as soon as we conclude the interview since it’s 9 pm here in the Netherlands! 

For the first 20 years of my recovery I gave myself firm limits, but when I met the woman I am now happily married to, I started to drink moderately with her—wine at dinner and so forth—and have really had no problem with it. 

Being drunk is not an attractive state to me, compared to the extremes I enjoyed on hallucinogens or opiates. I sometimes think it’s almost tragic that alcoholics fuck their lives up for something as uninteresting and mundane as alcohol. Other drugs are far more exciting!

Do you still have cravings? How do you deal with them?

I have a very mild craving for booze and sometimes for opiates. Last year I had to have back surgery, and I was in sufficient pain that the doctor prescribed oxycodone. And just as before, it felt really, really good. I soon realized I had to be very careful. After the surgery I developed some rules about only taking the prescribed amount, and I mostly stuck to them. But I was able to do that, and I didn’t feel the need to not take them because of fear of a relapse.

With the publication of your book, how has your view of yourself and your career changed?

So far I have liked becoming an “addiction person.” It is a new and unexpected experience for me. One of the reasons I wrote the book is that I felt I had something valuable to say that had not really been said before, given my position as someone who had had both an extreme addiction and who went on to become a researcher into the neuroscience of addiction. 

Again, I saw connections between the subjective experience and the objective mechanisms that I hoped would be compelling to people. I’m interested in bringing the science to the street. And to my surprise, many people have told me it is new information, it is illuminating, it has helped them. I’m thrilled to find out that it seems to have struck a chord with people.

To read an excerpt from Memoirs of an Addicted Brain, go here.

Walter Armstrong is the deputy editor at The Fix.

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Walter Armstrong is the Medical Editor at  Saatchi & Saatchi Wellness and the former deputy editor of The Fix. You can find him on Linkedin.