Question: Hello! I was watching this show about addictions, but it was not about drug addictions! There was a person who was addicted to chalk, another addicted to shopping (even though she was in debt) and one person who was addicted to running! Do you know how these addictions start in the brain?

  1. You can actually be addicted to anything! Addictions are an unhealthy dependence on a substance, behaviour or object. Addiction is a process that occurs in our brain when the behaviour or substance stimulates a reward pathway. Usually you start doing something because it makes you feel good. The feeling comes from dopamine being released in the brain and triggering the reward pathway. You liked that feeling, so you want to make it happen again.
    After a while the balance of chemicals in the brain gets disrupted. You might not get pleasure from the addictive thing anymore, but the body has come to rely on it, and feels extremely stressed without it. People will continue to perform the addictive behaviour to try to relieve the feeling of stress, even if they no longer enjoy the behaviour itself.

    Lots of things we do cause the release of dopamine in the brain. This is important to encourage us to do things like eat and bond with other people. But we don’t all get addicted to these or other pleasant things.
    For addiction to occur the balance of brain chemicals must be seriously disturbed. Some things are more likely to do this (certain drugs), while some addictions seem quite weird (chalk?). I don’t know why the weird ones occur, but it must cause a big reponse in the brain of those people.


  2. This is not my specialty gretykins, but I can understand how someone could get addicted to running! I didn’t watch this show, so I don’t know how bad this person’s addiction to running was, but I run a lot and there’s a real good feeling you get after you finish a run that can be quite addictive. I’ve just had an operation done on my shoulder, so I can’t run for up to three months – I’m not very happy about that!

    My basic understanding of addictions to something like running is that things like exercise and pain can generate the production of endorphins, which stands for “endogenous morphine” or morphine that gets produced naturally inside the body.

    Endorphins get produced by the hypothalamus and the pituitary gland and act on your brain, making you feel really good in the same way that morphine and other opiate drugs like heroin might make you feel (don’t do drugs – drugs are bad!). So, just like opiate drugs can be addictive, the endorphins that are produced in your brain after running can be addictive too.


  3. Yes, much of this is to do with chemicals in the brain making you feel happy for some reason. We can give people these molecules and influence whether they are happy (to some extent).

    However, these things will often work on top of other things that are quite complex, to do with who you are. It might be that there was something in your childhood that made you totally love tea – maybe it’s something you used to associate with something really pleasurable like sitting in the garden with your mum. When you get older you might start thinking about tea when you get stressed out, and over time you might start wanting tea more and more every time you’re stressed. You may not realise it until it’s become a pattern of behaviour you can’t control.

    Then there are natural variations in people. Some people are what’s known as “obsessive compulsive” in that they have to have things in a certain way. It’s very difficult to know exactly why. Combination of brain chemicals, upbringing and personality. When I was a kid there were times when I HAD to finish a computer game or hit a certain number of basketball shots in a sequence or something and couldn’t think about ANYTHING ELSE for a week. When you finish, you’re OK, but for a while it’s like your brain just can’t do anything else. Fortunately I was a kid, but if you start having things like this when you’re an adult (like with shopping) you might benefit from a little help.

    [It’s funny – my boy just had Finding Nemo on the TV in the room behind me and there’s the bit where the nice shark smells a bit of blood from one of the fish and immediately turns into Bad Shark. There’s a good chemical example right there.]


  4. Hi greytkins.

    It’s not my area but like the others have said, the brain can quickly become addicted to the chemicals that make us feel happy when we do something that makes us feel good. This could be anything and with an addiction, it becomes incredibly difficult to think of anything else until the craving is satisfied. And once it’s been satisfied everything can settle down and you can be a normal person again.

    I used to be addicted to chocolate. I would easily eat 1kg of chocolate a day. Sure, once in a while eat a lot of chocolate like at Easter but for me it was every day. One day I decided enough was enough and got help. The gym membership and chocolate bill was just getting ridiculous. Now I still will eat chocolate and even though I am so ever tempted at times to eat more, I have learned not to.


  5. I’ll pass on this as addictions are outside my area of science.