We give only the briefest of an overview here of some of the psychology relating to addiction. We are talking of addiction in a loose way. Clinical addiction such as to substances or gambling is a devestating illness, but many of the features of our more general use of the word and more devestating addictions are the same..

An established theory of learning relates to conditioning. When psychologists use the word ‘learning’ they are not thinking of learning for an exam or preparing for the driving theory test. They are thinking more of how learning from experiences becomes ‘wired into’ the brain and alters our behaviour.

Psychologists have used rats, cats, pigeons and dogs extensively in research. Essentially, they all learn in the same way as humans. A famous experiment was conducted more than a hundred years ago by a Russian named Ivan Pavlov. He presented dogs with food and rang a bell at the same time. There was a device to collect the dogs’ saliva. The dogs salivated when they saw the food. But eventually the dogs salivated to just the sound of the bell even when no food was presented. They had learned to associate the sound of a bell with food and automatically salivated just to the sund of a bell. In everyday life we can see our own dogs jump up with excitement when the doorbell rings: the bell has become associated with vistors. Even if naughty children have rung the bell and run away, the dog will jump up. This is putting it all very simply but it’s called classical conditioning whereby a neutral object (a bell in this case) becomes a stimulus to behaviour by association.

There is another type of conditioning called operant conditioning which works by rewarding or punishing voluntary behaviour – in humans or dogs! In the video below, a look at playing games involves cnditioning and also goes further to examine some other non-conditioning factors which make game engagement compulsive and/or enjoyable.

If you’d like to understand more about classical and operant conditioning check out the following video:

Other psychological factors

Another important area of psychology deals with social learning. This involves conditioning but is specifically related to how we learn behaviour from our social relationships. In a culture where heavy drinking for instance is fairly normal there is an increased likelihood of a child growing up becoming a heavy drinker (but not a certainty). We all know of ‘peer pressure’ to conform to certain values, attitudes and behaviours.

Genetic factors have been shown to correlate with some physical and mental illnesses. In the case of some physical illnesses such as haemophilia the risk of developing the illness is very high if genes are inherited. In the case of addiction there is still a lot of debate and research needed. It does seem that in some people a genetic factor may increase the likelihood of a person’s becoming an addict. However, genes only become ‘expressed’ when triggered by environmental factors such as those discussed above. It may be best to think of addiction as being caused by many different factors, and perhaps some people are more vulnerable than others.

Wlook at a little neuroscience, the brain and habit formation, at on our project site, Beat the Fix. As with all aspects of psychology and biological sciences there will always be competing theories. New findings will alter existing theories, but we’ve given some brief pointers to some ideas.


The brain sciences are posing lots of fascinating questions for our future as a species. Could machines become more intelligent than humans? Is the brain a kind of complex machine itself? Could robots really become androids – so human; like we relate to them as if with another human being? Much of science fiction looks at questions like these. We know that science fiction often predicts science fact.

Creatures of Habit, Creatures of Impulse

A few essential points have to be remembered about we humans. We are creatures just like dogs and apes, in particular we are animals, and then mammals. We have evolved over millions of years. Our arms and legs are related to fish fins. Our brains have grown ever more complex from insects and fish, almost literally adding further ‘layers’. The so-called primitive brain, the deepest structures of our brains, are sometimes called the lizard brain. (There’s a bit more about this, here).

It’s because of the very thick outer part of the human brain (called the neocortex), the thick grey layers folded in on themselves, that we are ‘human sapiens’. We can think, reason, talk, write, compose opera, build cities, remember, plan for the future. We are aware of our own deaths. (Of course, it’s the human brain that designs weapons of ass destruction too, or seeks ever more efficient ways to exploit people and the planet). We are called ‘rational animals’ but could equally be called ‘symbolic animals’ since every thought is made of symbols. A word is a symbol. Try thinking for a few seconds without thinking words! From the most advanced mathematical formula to a business brand logo we live totally in a symbolic world. The manipulation of symbols – by  parents, teachers, writers, painters, politicians, advertisers etc – deeply affects our learning and our sense of who we are. It’s because of symbols that we can be ‘rational’. But we remain animals with all the inherited brain characteristics. In fact, we’ll call someone ‘an animal’ if they are behaving without rational constraint, or ‘a pig’ if they have no control over their appetites. Often people with addictions are condemned in this way (even though anybody doing the condemning who was being rational would accept that addiction is an illness.)

But just how rational are we?

A long time ago, the Rorman writer Ovid said, “What is now reason was formerly impulse or instinct.” Thousands of years before modern psychology it seems to have been realised that ‘reason’ is a latecomer on the human stage. It makes sense. For animals, including human beings, acting on impulse, without having to think, was essential to survival. If there was food from a kill or a find you ate it straight away. You didn’t hang around to think about what type of animal was making that growling noise in the bushes – you ran. Those ancient brain structures that motivate immediate, impulsive action are still embedded in the modern brain.

Yet, and putting it too simply, humans have learned to put a brake on impulse. There’s actually a part of the brain which has evolved in the front of your head called the dorsolateral prefrontal cortex (mentioning this in public is probably not a good idea). the neuroscientist Marc Lewis calls it ‘the bridge of the ship’, it’s “critical for reasoning, remembering, planning and self-control.” This part of the brain can be damaged by some substance abuse, leading to decreased control. More importantly for most people, the neural pathways between the ‘control centre’ and other parts of the brain can and do change. In full-on addictions, impulses become immune to signals from the control centre. The same is true of minor habits. That’s why will power and reason aren’t usually sufficient to remove addictions and habits. We may genuinely want to change our habits and be unable to explain to ourselves – or anyone else – wjy we can’t. It’s as if reason, ;ogic and conscious control have lost all power.

Most of our mind is unconscious

Luckily, most of our actions and behaviour are ‘unconscious’. We aren’t aware of how we are balancing on a bicycle or driving a car. It’s as if we are on autopilot. Neuroscientist David Lewis talks about our ‘zombie brain’, where almost everything we do is beneath our level of awareness. This includes our most deeply rooted desires and habits, and those impulses that stem from millions of years of evolution. Many times, such as falling in love at first sight, we can’t resist the impulse with mere thinking. Our unconscious mind is making judgments and taking in information we aren’t consciously aware of, and it happens in less than a secon sometimes. Psychologists claim we ‘make up our mind’ about someone we meet almost immediately without being aware of why we feel as we do.

I do not like thee, Doctor Fell,

The reason why – I cannot tell;

But this I know, and know full well,

I do not like thee, Doctor Fell.

(See here for origins of this rhyme)

There is a very spooky idea out there which is that we have no free will at all. The claim by some scientists and philosophers is that our ‘zombie’ brain, our unconscious minds, do all the decision making. We act and behave, talk and write, laugh and cry as the result of brain activity we are never aware of. Our conscious mind, which catches up with what we are saying, doing, thinking, feeling a millisecond afterwards, only has the illusion of being in control. Heavy stuff, and not without its crtitics. But the important point to remember is that many of our behaviours, thoughts and feelings are out of our conscious control.

Mind and Body

Is the mind separate from the brain and the body? No one has answered the question finally but we can all agree that without a brain we would have difficulty thinking! What is quite new in research is the place of the body as a whole. Brain cells run throughout the body, particularly of interest in the gut. Everyone knows from experience how certain fears or anxieties can cause digestive problems. Scientists now talk of the gut-brain axis, or the ‘two brains’ theory.  Remember that, despite its incredible complexity, the brain is only an organ of the body, like the liver, and both are essential to life. Every part of the body down to the smallest cell is ultimately connected via the immune system which is a vastly ‘intelligent’ system which make sthese connections – and an ‘intelligence’ of which we are unaware in our day to day lives.

The Extended Mind

Where is the mind then? In the brain? Or does it stretch down through our guts and other organs to find a place to live? What if it lives beyond the body too, extended from the individual human being that you and I are? As far back as the 1930s scientists were implanting electrodes (very thin wires) into people’s brains and were able to arouse feelings or thoughts or movements by sending a signal using radio waves. Who or what controlled the mind then and where was the mind? These days it is technologically very simple to plant electronic chips into people’s bodies and brains (this may be a way forward for controlling some diseases suchas Parksinsons).

Besides these physical connections to brains, what about the relationship between people. Two lovers may be ‘of one mind’. We talk about being ‘like-minded’ and so on. If we watch a play by Shakespeare we are in some way connected with a mind that perished 400 years ago. And so on. ‘Where the mind is’ is not as simple as it first looks.

Back in 1962 a man called Marshall McLuhan, still famous for his work, suggested that electronic machines would become ‘extensions of our nervous sytem’. He also said:

The medium is the message. This is merely to say that the personal and social consequences of any medium – that is, of any extension of ourselves – result from the new scale that is introduced into our affairs by each extension of ourselves, or by any new technology.

This is heady stuff which expands our understanding of psychology. We are invited to consider our environment not only at the levels of education, culture, politics, material resources, geography, wealth and poverty etc but also in terms of our ‘machine zones’.


“We shape our tools and then our tools shape us.”



Only one, and not necessarily the best, way of considering our digital environment, how our new ‘machines’, invented by humans go on to shape what humans are. Certainly something to think about.