The War On Drugs
I’ve written that an understanding of the brain is critical to effective citizenship and effective law making. A good example of this is the war on drugs. In one study about 36% of convicted criminals were under the influence of drugs at the time of their criminal offense. Here are the results of criminalizing drug use. A few decades ago, 38,000 Americans were in prison for drug-related offenses. Now, it is half a million. As a results there are more Americans per capita in prison, than in any other country. It is ironic to call the United States the land of the free. Moreover, this mass incarceration has not slowed the drug trade. Not only is the War on Drugs not being won, it is also extremely counterproductive.
Ir is clear that criminalization is not working, and that a medical approach is more appropriate. Dr. Eagleman is working on a potentially effective approach for treating drug addicts. It provides real-time feedback during brain imaging allowing cocaine users to view their own brain activity and learn how to regulate it. He puts an addict into a fMRI brain scanner. Pictures of crack cocaine are shown and the addict is asked to crave. This activates the particular regions of the brain that are known as the craving network. Then the addict is asked to think about the costs of using crack cocaine in terms of finances, relationships, and employment. This activates a different set of brain areas that are known as the suppression network. These two networks are always battling it out for supremacy, and whichever wins at any moment determined what the addict dos when offered crack cocaine.
The scanner can measure whether the short-term thinking of the craving network, or the long-term thinking of the impulse control network is winning. The addict is given real-time visual feedback in the form of a speedometer so she can see how the battle is going. When craving is winning, the needle is in the red zone. When the impulse is successfully suppressing, the needle moves to the blue zone. The addict can use different approaches to discover what works to tip the balance of the networks.
By practicing over and over, the addict gets better understanding what she needs to do to move the needle. Although the addict might not be consciously aware of how she is doing it, but through repeated practice she can strengthen the neural circuitry that enables her to suppress. The hope is that when she’s next offered crack she’ll have the cognitive skills to overcome her immediate cravings. . The training simply provides the cognitive skills to have more control over her choice, rather than be a slave to her impulses.
Time will allow the estimation of the effectiveness of this technique. But it does provide some insight into how research into the brain can address the problem of addiction.