Marc Lewis’s unique relationship with drugs permeates his new book, Memoirs of an Addicted Brain. Lewis spent the vast majority of his time between the ages of 15 to 30 high on whatever substance he could find. He was introduced to alcohol and marijuana while in a depressive state in prep school. This kicked off his fascination and addiction to mind-altering substances. He then moved on to UC Berkeley in the last 1960s at the peak of psychedelic experimentation where he moved from excessive amounts of hallucinogens to intravenous heroin use – a habit that almost killed him. Nevertheless, he continued his drug exploits backpacking through Asia where he could easily access freshly produced heroin and opium dens.
Somehow Lewis managed to keep on track and earn his PhD is Psychology. However, this path continued to fuel his drug habit as he stole opiates from the laboratories of academia and from the psychiatric hospitals in which he worked. He was discovered on a few occasions and attempted recovery, but it wasn’t until he was looking down the barrel of a long stint in prison that he fully embraced his sobriety for the long term and went on to become a neuroscientist.
Lewis is now an “expert” in both being an addict and the science behind the effects drugs have on the human brain. This produces the novel experience of an individual who can intertwine both the subjective experience in one’s own mind of taking drugs with the objective scientific findings on the effects these substances have on the brain. There are few people on the planet able to synthesize these experiences in such an articulate manner. The clarity and detail Lewis writes with are owed in part to the extensive journaling he did while high. He explains he was very intent on attempting to describe his subjective, internal drug experiences. Now he can compare how he felt back then with his newfound understanding of the neuroscience occurring in the brain.
In his memoir, Lewis writes: “Addiction is just a corrupted form of learning.” He feels that using learning to describe addiction puts the concept into a tangible form we can all relate to. Lewis says that all the same mechanisms in the brain utilized by the learning process are also activated with addiction. However, while there is a goal of learning – an endpoint to be reached – there is not a goal with addiction.
In reference to addiction, Lewis says, “It is just self-reinforcing with no object but itself.”
What do you think of Lewis’s comparison of addiction to learning? Leave a comment below and share your thoughts.