In “Unbroken Brain”, Maia Szalavitz talks about her addiction to heroin and cocaine, and how “By July of 1988 my life had narrowed to the point of a needle.” The book is interesting from various points of view, including the neuroscience insights she talks about. For instance, the neurotransmitter dopamine, which is associated with pleasure, including the pleasure of some drugs, is really responsible for one kind of pleasure. There is the pleasure of wanting versus the pleasure of liking. Think of the pleasure of the hunt, the excitement, the intent, the sense of confidence that you get what you want. In contrast, the pleasures of the feast are satisfaction, comfort, attainment, and sedation. Some drugs give one type of pleasure – cocaine would be the hunt – and others give the other type – such as heroin.
Normal people get used to stimuli after a while — this is a normal process called habituation. In some instances, you can get more and more sensitive to a threat – that process is sensitization.
Maia thinks that when the joy leaches out of the drug experience, that this is due to habituation, but when the craving gets more and more (despite the drug not making you feel good anymore) – that is sensitization.
Before she was cured of addiction, Maia had immersed her body and brain with huge amounts of drugs. And yet, when it was all over, she took a brain scan, and it showed a prefrontal cortex that was larger than in normal people. And this has been found with other recovered addicts. “One study found that former cocaine and heroin addicts have a greater volume of gray matter in these regions compared not only to active drug users but also normal controls.” This area is responsible for self control, impulse control, and inhibiting responses.
Maybe this means that after being a slave to their addictive drives, and then being cured, they were stronger in some ways for the experience.