This article has been rewritten in 2020, some 6 years after it was originally published.
The main reason for this is that our knowledge of addiction has increased in these 6 years. Although we are fascinated by the results of the study cited here which stated that thoughts of drinking created a similar brain frequency as drinking itself and that negative self-perception among the recovering alcoholics in this study also created a similar brain frequency to that of actually drinking, we no longer completely agree with the conclusions of the study
The reason for this increase in alpha wave brain activty in the initial study was the avoidance of negative self-perception schemata, whereas we now believe the increase in brain frequency in recovering alcoholics reflects the allodynamic nature of the addicted brain. A brain so out of balance that it continually attempt to achieve even the most fleeting homeostasis.
The increased brain frequencies of “euphoric recall” of the study represent an increasingly out of balance brain (allodynamic) which is constantly trying to achieve fleeting homeostasis in emotion/stress regulation via the maladaptive behavior of addictive behavior.
What is homeostasis in relation to emotion – not being distressed.
This relates to addictive behaviors or behavioral addiction too as these have similar emotion dysregulation and compulsive behaviors.
A fairly recently published article on how addiction is a dance between dopamine and stress chemicals is reflected that in terms of EEG brain frequencies, we believe.
Our brain becomes increasingly out of kilter and requires more and more to achieve less and less in terms of emotional and stress regulation.
The rise in dopamine in this study below, I believe is reflective of the brain pathologically wanting to balance the brain temporarily, from a distressed state, as dopamine is implicated in both wanting, and in stress regulation.
It is the stress/distress that prompts this surge in dopamine to really want a drink or drug, or in other words, it is human distress that prompts this pathological wanting not to be in chronic distress. It has little to do with drink or drugs, or pleasure, at the endpoint of addiction it is more to do with alleviating chronic distress.
So, as with the study, it is avoidance of negative self schemata and emotions that promotes this brain frequency but this is reflective of a more pronounced allodynamic brain. It is a neural signature of addiction, this elevated brain frequency, of a system so far removed from that of one revolving around normal homeostasis parameters. Emotion and stress have become so dysregulated in relation to achieving even a fleeting homeostasis, that it continually needs to be achieved by using or drinking, which in itself creates even more dysregulated emotion and stress.
The article (1) here set us on a research voyage to a large extent, as it confirmed to us that one of the reasons people relapse is because sobriety is, initially, so foreign, so alien, so troubling.
We do not really have the tools to cope with it. Hence we need a whole lot of help to recovery. Our illness has effectively taken over our survival mechanisms and appears to speak to us with our own voice although it is essentially the motivational voice of addiction imploring us to survive by re-using.
It is like a psychotic care-giver who is convinced the best way to survive is to employ a way of living that is destined to take your life away and then kill you.
This article showed that the “euphoric recall”, often mentioned in recovery circles, is not only instantly retrieved from memory but is immediate.
The euphoria is actually re-experienced, in the brain, in brain frequencies, rather than “re-called” as such. It is re-“felt” in terms of brain frequency.
Thinking about drinking activates a similar brain frequency to actually drinking itself.
Also, it may be also that experience of a negative self perception may activate this brain frequency also and instantly remind an addicted individual of alcohol or drugs as a way to deal with these negative self perceptions, these distressing negative emotions.
This brain frequency suggests we consume substances in order to do the most basic of survival strategies, to regulate our emotional and motivational states. Our emotions have become the slaves of substance abuse and behavioural addictions. Addiction does, after all, mean to be bound.
We are bound to our addictions for the basic of human needs, to regulate emotion.
In other words, we are prompted/motivated to relieve negative emotions and distress by brain frequencies occurring automatically in the brain.
This is a brain signature of compulsion, an automatic response and behaviour to alleviate distress.
The distress is reflective of emotions being out of balance and the brain automatically recalls how this distress can be “fixed” or returned to a fleeting balance (or homeostasis).
So in early recovery, a period of frequent distress, the brain is constantly recalling or re-experiencing how to alleviate this distress, i.e. to use or drink. Even if an addicted individual has consciously decided never to drink or use again!
Even thinking of drinking is distressing. Studies show that so-called craving is distress based, eliciting negative emotions like fear, anger, shame.
In simple terms, it denotes a persistent chronic negative reinforcement, the brain has become conditioned; distress prompts the conditional response of using/drinking to relieve this distress.
This article (1) appears to be saying in scientific terms what our facilitator at the treatment centre was saying from a therapeutic and observational point of view, from great and profound anecdotal evidence, that addiction has become a “parasite” on our emotions. It has become a “parasite” on our impaired ability to relieve, regulate or control our emotions. Addiction has increasingly made us a slave to drink and drugs in regulating our emotions.
That substances appear to take over our emotional states and regulation. In this case, alcohol seems to have become intrinsic to our emotional regulation.
How can we say this? In this experiment, the researchers found that not only does simply thinking about alcohol create a very similar brain frequency in the brain as actually drinking, but that this brain frequency is also seen when we are having negative emotions about ourselves (as alcoholics).
To us, this means our negative self-perception and emotional regulation itself has become absolutely entwined with drinking and taking drugs, in other words, negative emotional states automatically give rise to a “desire” state, a need to drink or use drugs to alleviate negative emotions (or in treatment terms “to fix our feelings”)
It has become a automatic, habitualised and compulsive reaction and response to negative emotions and adverse self perception.
How we feel about ourselves has ultimately driven our addiction. Hence we need to start think differently about ourselves soon in recovery and how we can regulate emotion, in a more healthy way, because for many years our alcohol, drugs or addictive behaviours may have been doing the thinking and feeling for us! In fact, we continue to use external forces to an extent, in early recovery, via the use of sponsors, therapists etc, to help us regulate our emotions, until our brain function improves in relation to controlling our own emotions. This can take some time.
One thing that kept me sober in early recovery was not listening to my self-centred thoughts (as much as I could because these thoughts have your voice attached so are hard to completely ignore!) as my thoughts were the product of negative emotions which then caused more negative emotions and then brought memories of past drinking etc and the people, places and things attached with this drinking. My explicit memory was full of reasons to drink too when my implicit memory (in charge of compulsive behaviour) could not get me to drink.
Anyway, here we go…” Evidence demonstrates that attachment and interactions between parents and child play a significant role in normal development; alternatively, impaired parental bonding appears to be a major risk factor for development of mental illness, substance abuse and possible substance dependence later in life (Canetti et al. 1997; Newcomb and Felix-Ortiz 1992; Petraitis et al. 1995; Brook et al. 1989) – It is within this context that this study and the Self-Perception and Experiential Schemata Assessment (SPESA) were formulated. The SPESA is designed for sensitivity to negative, average or positive perceptions of self, experiences and self in-experience in three life domains; childhood, adolescence and adulthood.
The SPESA takes less than 10 min to administer and 10 min to score. It provides important insight into the perceptual, visceral, affective and cognitive processes that may preclude the actual physical or psychological substance abuse or dependence. This instrument divulges perceptual information regarding the endogenous and exogenous experiences of the individual; including, physical, sexual or emotional abuse, self-efficacy, self image, view of self in relation to family and peers, in addition to perceptions of alienation and inadequacy .
Individuals with a family history of alcoholism show increased alpha activity (brain frequency) in posterior regions after alcohol consumption and rate it more difficult to resist further drinking than controls (Kaplan et al. 1988). Males at risk for alcoholism show increased low-alpha EEG activity (7.5–10 Hz) after ingesting alcohol as compared to males at low risk (Cohen et al. 1993).
Michael et al. (1993) found higher central alpha and slow-beta coherence in frontal and parietal electrodes in relatives of alcoholics and lower parietal alpha and slow beta coherence in males with alcohol dependence.
Notably, other findings indicate that morphine, alcohol and marjuana increase alpha 2 power in the spectral EEG and relate this to the euphoric state produced by the drugs (Lukas 1991, 1993; Lukas et al. 1995).
Elevated alpha power amplitude is suggested to be a potential threat indicator for the development of alcoholism and men with fathers having alcohol use disorders are more likely to have high-voltage alpha than men with unaffected fathers at baseline or after receiving placebo (Ehlers and Schuckit 1988, 1990, 1991; Ehlers et al. 1989).
We define experiential schemata (ES) as a neurologic progression in human development involving a fundamental self-organization process. This process is based in the formulation of concepts of self originating in perceptions of self (endogenous) formed through interactions with others and the environment (exogenous). These encoded schemata become the foundation for prevailing emotions, motivations, attitudes, and attributions relating to self and self-in-the-world that are maintained, reinforced and entrenched in neural coding mechanisms formed through dendritic arborization (spreading of neural networks) over the lifespan.
In normal development ES involving experiences, behaviors, learning and organization of self are engrained or reinforced in neural circuits with much of the acquired information being necessary for social functioning, and overall survival in most circumstances. The drawback to this process is that it can be extremely difficult to introduce new concepts relating to self—identity to an individual as well as novel learning material.
Based upon critical concepts from a variety disciplines contributing to addiction research, we propose that a common neurophysiological pattern exists in recovering alcoholics (RSA) when evaluating self and self-in-experience that is significantly different from non-clinical controls.
This is the first study of its kind to evaluate EEG patterns of self-perception and experiential schemata in a group of RSA as well as controls. The significant differences between groups in the SPESA condition may provide insight into a very probable neural pathway which stands to be an idiosyncratic neurologic anomaly for the RSA population in this study, in addition to a possible antecedent to Substance Use Disorders (SUDs).
The excess alpha activity in SUD when processing perception of self and self-in experience may reflect a state of desynchronization (or an idling fear and evaluator response guided by maladaptive ES) within the individual, given that alpha is generated in the thalamus (Lorincz et al. 2008) and is known to be involved in both attention and memory processes (Cannon et al. in press-a).
This alpha excess possibly places demands on resources otherwise employed for the homeostatic functioning of the individual; including, autonomic, perceptual, attentional, social, cognitive and sensory processes.
Notably, research demonstrates the use of certain chemicals produces widespread alpha power increases in the cortex thereby, at least for this study group and their reports of ‘using’ and ‘drinking’ thought patterns, bringing the brain into synchrony, if only for a very short period of time.
We believe this to be the euphoria addicted individuals speak of so fondly and is one possible reason for the difficulty in treating these disorders in addition to the high relapse rates.
The excess alpha activity during the task is possibly attributable to ES and the associated emotions relating to internal and external conflict and confusion distinguishing past from present and the brain’s reaction to re-experiencing the past.
Damasio (1994) discusses the continuous monitoring of the body by the brain
as specific content and images are processed, exacting not only changes in brain electrical activity but also chemical reactions. Thus, as the brain communicates and orchestrates the affective state of the individual in response to these contents and images relating to self and self-in-experience; it is plausible that a large scale feedback loop is formed involving not only perceptual processes but relative autonomic functioning. This process possibly reinforces the addicted person to become habituated to an aroused cortical state (i.e. increased alpha/beta activity) and when there is a shift to ‘normalcy’ it is errantly perceived as abnormal thereby increasing the desire or need for a substance to return to the aroused (or perceived normal) state.
Also, this study offers support to the idea of increased the dopamine production within limbic regions in addicted populations (Blum et al. 2007; Kohnke et al. 2003) as increased dopamine producion may be reflected in excitatory frequency domains observed.
The possibility that substance abuse interacts with specific brain regions in
specific frequencies for specific time intervals appears to be a valid concept, noting the paradox that the resulting self destruction and self-deprecation to achieve a desired state or to change or alter an undesired state transcends immediate comprehension.
Many of the individuals in the RSA group with 3 or more years of continuous abstinence report a consistent effort to intervene on their initial reactions to
external cues and seek additional outside interpretations from counselors, peers or family members for suggestions in how to deal with life events, rather than go on their first instinct.”
To summarise this study and how it relates to recovery..
The negative self-perception some of us have had since childhood, which leads to persistent negative emotions and eventually led to a “solution” to these distressing feelings via external means, drink and drugs, for example.
As our addiction becomes more severe, our neural responses to distress becomes more furrowed into our brain; to reach for a drink when feeling negative or distressed becomes more conditioned in our brain and behaviour.
So, as we become more addicted our compulsive response to negative emotion about ourselves and others becomes more severe.
In simple terms, we increasingly reach for a drink or drug as our emotions become increasingly more severely dysregulated, or out of control, in the addiction cycle.
To the extent, that we become chronically conditioned to drinking or using drugs when in increasingly negative emotional states.
Even the experience of a negative emotion can prompt the urge to use or drink. This is reflected in brain frequencies (themselves reflective of brain chemicals).
The rise in dopamine in this study, I believe is reflective of the brain pathologically wanting to balance the brain temporarily, from a distressed state, as dopamine is implicated in both wanting, and in stress regulation. It is the stress/distress that prompts this surge in dopamine to really want a drink or drug, or in other words, it is human distress that prompts this pathological wanting not to be in chronic distress. It has little to do with drink or drugs, or pleasure, at the endpoint of addiction it is more to do with alleviating chronic distress.
Our compulsive behaviours are, in fact, compulsive urges to alleviate distress.
It is how we cope and deal with this distress in early recovery that will determine if we remain in recovery.
It is how we deal with this “voice” motivationally telling us to do something we never want to do again that will determine how well we recover.
It is a voice compelling us but it is not our voice. It is not our voice of self-agency, our recovery voice. It is our addiction voice.
It just sounds like us.
Addiction is a neurobiological disease that is reactivated by distress and only silenced by acceptance and by serenity (emotional balance).
These are two powerful emotion regulation strategies and mark the beginning of our new ability to regulate our own emotion. Regulating our own emotion is the key to recovery.
Through recovery time, the brain frequency becomes quieter but it never disappears, it is always there, waiting to be reactivated, by our distress.
Cannon, R., Lubar, J., & Baldwin, D. (2008). Self-perception and experiential schemata in the addicted brain. Applied psychophysiology and biofeedback,33(4), 223-238.