New York Author’s Book Posits Addiction is a Learning Disorder

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New York Author’s Book Posits Addiction is a Learning Disorder

Maia Szalavitz, author and journalist, has recently published a book about substance abuse with an approach not entirely adopted by modern science – that addiction is a learning disorder, and our brains aren’t really “broken”. And yes, we can relearn to be sober.

Szalavitz is no stranger to addiction herself. In the 1980’s. she was addicted to heroin and cocaine. She has been writing about substance abuse for 30 years now, and her book, entitled “Unbroken Brain: A Revolutionary New Way of Understanding Addiction” speculates that addiction is not a disease, per say, or even a moral weakness. Instead, she proposes that it is a learning disorder.

She believes that the road to addiction depends on whether the user “learns” that the substance can alleviate some of the negative feelings they are experiencing. These feelings often consist of anxiety, depression, pain, or other mental illnesses which commonly coexist with addiction.

She states that she herself never had an addictive personality. Instead, she says that anxiety was the cause of her addiction. Szalavitz wrote:

“Fundamentally, the idea of a general addictive personality is a myth.”

Szalavitz also contends that support, including loving relationships, is actually the key to maintaining sobriety, because learning is more effectively facilitated in a supportive environment.

While Szalavitz got sober using with the assistance of a 12-step program, she isn’t terribly fond of the model, particularly when used in context with the criminal justice system. Indeed, as many as half of the clients in these programs are forced into treatment by the courts. Still others are coerced by family, friends, or employers.

And yet, Szalavitz states that those compelled to enter these programs are less likely to get sober than if they opt for treatment on their own. She cites that learning is driven by more intrinsic motivation that by outside stimuli such as rewards and punishment. However, others might say this is somewhat contrary to classical conditioning.

She continues to state that she would like parents and the juvenile justice system to reconsider an automatic referral into rehab for youth. And truly, not everyone who commits a low-level drug or alcohol offense is an addict. Some people grow out of this behavior, and over-treating it can have more negative consequences – such as exposing less experienced teens to more hardened drug users in group rehabs.

Moreover, she purports that substance abuse exists on a spectrum – this implies that any persons’s personal substance use typically falls somewhere between two polar opposites – namely abstinence and addiction.

On a related note, she also contends that many of the stereotypes that coincide with addiction –  such as irresponsible behavior, impulsivity, and hypersexuality – are all commonly attributed to people of color, and have therefore contributed to the war on drugs and mass incarceration of minorities.


Admittedly, I haven’t read the book, but I think some of her ideas are interesting and not at all without merit. I’m not sure her theory of addiction as a learning disorder aligns with classical conditioning (i.e. we learn by reward and punishment.) But the question is, are those reactions to reward and punishment enhanced by intrinsic motivation? Probably, that’s why I think she has a point.

Personally, I view addiction as a product of nature vs. nurture. And if you believe that a mental illness is a disease, I’m not sure you can count out addiction, either. But I do like her resounding theory “addiction is compulsive behavior despite negative consequences”.

~ G. Nathalee Serrels, M.A., Psychology

Related: Deleware Supports Improved Rehab for Juvenile Offenders

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