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Taking charge of the brain

May 28, 2013
by Nicholas A. Roes, PhD
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(EDITOR’S NOTE: Rudolph E. Tanzi, PhD, is the Joseph P. and Rose F. Kennedy Professor of Neurology at Harvard Medical School, famous for PBS television specials as well as for heading the Alzheimer’s Genome Project that discovered the first Alzheimer’s disease genes. He is co-author (with Deepak Chopra) of SUPER BRAIN (Harmony Books, 2012). Tanzi recently agreed to an interview with Road to Recovery columnist Nick Roes about the implications of the ideas in SUPER BRAIN for addiction professionals.)


“My name is Nick, and I am not my brain.”

Should this be the way people with addictions introduce themselves at 12-Step meetings?

Maybe so.

Rudolph E. Tanzi, PhD, believes that what helps addicts is the same thing that helps everyone else: perspective. If the theories in his book SUPER BRAIN are correct, we can stop wasting our time with psychodynamic therapy, healing the wounded inner child, and even much of the medication used to treat addiction and other behavioral health issues. Instead, we would teach our clients to use their minds to control their brains.

As an example, Tanzi recently shared with me his thoughts on cravings. Simply put, a craving is driven by memory of a pleasurable event (as anxiety is driven by memory of pain). If we can help those with alcohol and drug problems put their cravings in perspective—at the moments they are having them—addiction could go the way of smallpox, Tanzi reasons. Our minds would rule our brains, so addiction would not be possible.

The trouble is, once an activity is repeated often enough, brain circuitry becomes “hard-wired.” The brain continues to send signals that maintain an addiction, and it’s possible these can become so strong that we no longer can exercise our power of choice.

In these limited circumstances, addiction medicines might help us re-establish the mind’s dominion over the runaway brain. But the rest of the time, with practice and a helpful world view, we can teach our brains to become our servants rather than our masters, Tanzi believes.

“Whenever we try to change something with resistance,” says Tanzi, “the brain will respond with persistence. Cravings are just the brain doing its thing—it’s not who you are.” So, rather than encouraging clients to resist the status quo, we should be working with them to reshape or remodel it. Perspective allows our clients to free themselves from the turmoil of their own brains.

Not defined by our brain

Our brain, stomach and lungs are organs. It makes no sense to identify ourselves as one of our organs. We are no more our brain than we are our stomach or our lungs.

To be sure, the brain is our most sophisticated organ. It creates thoughts for us and internal dialogue. Our brain brings us sensations and images. But human beings are so much more than that.

“Suppose you experience a red car going down the road,” says Tanzi. “You would say you see a red car; you wouldn’t say you are a red car. But as soon as the brain brings us an emotion like sadness, we say, ‘I am sad.’”

Yet we are more than the sum total of the experiences our brains bring us. The “real” you is the mountaintop view, with an awareness of everything around you. Your brain brings you an incredible world of color and sensation, but that’s not all that you are, because you have self-awareness.

Clients can feel a craving and know it at the same time. Our brains do a lot of work for us, but Tanzi calls on us to help our clients step up out of the paralysis of the reptilian brain, and transcend that turmoil. If we can help free our clients from their fears and past pain and get their minds back in charge of their brains, this is the surest path to high-quality sobriety.

Clients don’t need to be stuck in their intellectual or emotional brains. They can be witnesses to images and thoughts, while refusing to be their slaves.

Responding to cravings

It’s not quite as easy as it sounds, because it is possible for a feedback loop to become so strong that a client doesn’t have much of a choice. But since there is always a feedback loop involved, simply taking the time to observe a craving, breathe deeply, and get the rest of one’s body and mind involved can begin the rewiring.

When a craving comes, a client should monitor his entire body and notice what is around him. Being more mindful of body parts, emotions, the environment and society can help take a client out of craving and rise above it.

Instead of the idea of resisting a craving, Tanzi advises that we help clients reshape it into other things. Then, incrementally, the craving will go away. He believes we need to teach our clients not to resist cravings, but to include them in a higher awareness.

A client can be a witness to a craving, and realize that his brain is making him want a drug. He can build awareness that it’s the result of his neuro-circuitry. Expansion of his awareness to the global experience will displace the focus on the narrow experience of craving.

It also is helpful for clients to realize that the same situation might have to be handled tomorrow—or in an hour—because the brain will take a while to reshape itself. As it does, the brain will start sending more helpful messages. Eventually, the messages supportive of high-quality sobriety will become more powerful than the messages undermining it.

It might take some doing to explain this approach to our clients and to convince them that resisting a craving will make it worse. It often goes against their misidentification of the problem as a lack of willpower.