Incentive Sensitization Theory

Theories of Addiction

There are different theories for why people become addicted to alcohol or drugs. Some experts claim that it is an inherited disease. This suggests that some individuals may be doomed to addiction even before they touch these substances. There is also the view that it is learned behavior that can be unlearned with the right therapy. A relatively new theory, put forward by Dr. Kent C. Berridge and Dr. Terry Robinson in 1993, suggests that addiction occurs due to incentive sensitization. This idea has been the subject of much debate and has stirred up a lot of interest.

Addiction and Incentive

Those individuals who become addicts will exhibit behaviors that are hard to understand. There is usually plenty of evidence that this substance abuse is causing problems, yet the individual will continue with the behavior regardless. Even those who do escape addiction and find success in recovery can later relapse. This motivation to abuse these substances must be a force a lot stronger than merely liking something. Everybody will have things they like but it won’t change their behavior in the same way and addiction will. Liking is not a good explanation for addition. Instead addicts have developed a powerful motivation that is called incentive salience.

Incentive salience is an intense type of wanting that develops because the brain develops a strong association between a stimuli and a reward. This association develops subconsciously but it can soon start to influence outward behavior. This compulsion to get more of the stimuli can be incredibly strong. This is why an alcoholic may no longer even like alcohol but they still feel compelled to drink it.

Incentive Sensitization Theory of Addiction

The reason why incentive salience occurs with addiction is because the brain of the individual has become sensitized to the substance. This can be viewed as occurring in four steps:

* Susceptible individuals can develop hypersensitization if they are repeatedly exposed to addictive substances. This means that in the future the drug will stimulate neurobehavioral systems at a great intensity than in the past. When this happens the individual will get an increased level of pleasure from their drug use – at least initially.
* Hypersensitization leads to incentive salience and the symptoms associated with addiction. The individual will now have a strong desire for the drug that goes way beyond liking it.
* Incentive salience ensures repetition of the behavior.
* The unconscious forces that drive the addiction become a conscious yearning for the drug.

Addiction is More Than Learned Behavior

While it could be said that incentive salience is a learned motivational response it does not mean that addiction is purely a learned behavior. The forces that drive the addiction are mostly in the subconscious and the individual will have little control over them at the time. It seems more likely that learning has a higher importance when it comes to choice of drug and the rituals associated with it. If incentive sensitization theory is correct then curing addiction may not be as simple as just unlearning the behavior.

Incentive Sensitization and Addiction Treatment

It can be hard to understand why addicts fail to give up their addiction. They may frequently be remorseful about their behaviors and make plans to stop. Despite their promises though, they may continue to use or relapse after only a short time. It is easy to dismiss these actions as the work of an individual who is willfully set on their own destruction. Incentive sensitization gives another explanation for their behavior.

As people progress through addiction the role of pleasure in their use of drug becomes less important. The individual may no longer even like the substance but they still feel the need to keep on taking it. The unconscious effects of incentive salience are producing this behavior. When this individual makes promises to change they may really mean it. Despite their good intentions they may continuously fail. This is why many addicts will require assistance and treatment if they are to escape their addiction forever.

Incentive Sensitization in Recovery

The effects of the sensitization of parts of the brain to addictive substances can be long lasting. Even if an individual gives up these substances it may be many years before the sensitization begins to diminish. This explains why some individuals can relapse even after a long period in recovery. The urge to use again may be hidden in the subconscious or it can appear as an actual craving for the drug.

An understanding of incentive sensitization can be highly valuable to people in recovery. It can let them see that just because a craving to use again appears it doesn’t mean that they are doing something wrong. It may be many years before these cravings disappear completely, but they do diminish over time. Incentive salience is undoubtedly a strong foe but knowledge is the key to defeating it. Getting support during those times when these cravings appear will help the individual avoid a relapse.

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