Addiction: Pay Attention

Heroin and chocolate cake have a nasty way of crowding out the rest of the universe. The country’s chief addiction expert argues that the propensity to drink, overeat and take drugs is a matter of attention gone awry.

Meeting her now, it is hard to believe that the Mexican-Russian great-granddaughter of the revolutionary Leon Trotsky ever felt the need to impress her friends. But the universal teenage urge to look more glamorous drove a young Nora Volkow, then in high school, to smoke her first cigarette. It could have been the first step toward a nasty habit, but something in her neurochemistry rebelled. She hated it.

Volkow, now one of the country’s most prominent drug addiction researchers and the director of the National Institute on Drug Abuse (NIDA), doesn’t think that her disgust for cigarettes had anything to do with morals or self-control. She says she’s just naturally intense; the additional stimulation provided by the nicotine was simply too much for her. “I like coffee, but I cannot even drink it because I get so wired,” she says. “I was probably born like that. I’m very protected against drugs. It’s my neurobiology, and I’m lucky.”

Listening to her explain her theories about addiction and the brain, her self-diagnosis sounds right on target. Even though she’s petite, with a jogger’s lean physique, she dominates the room. She speaks very fast, with a Spanish accent that rounds her vowels, and ideas tumble out one after the other so quickly that it’s almost impossible to keep up.

She’s a fast-moving example of one of her most interesting theories: that addiction may be a malfunction of the normal human craving for stimulation. Volkow thinks that drugs and other addictive habits tap into some of the deepest forces within us—our lust for newness, our yearning for vitality and the deep-down thrill of being alive. “We all seek that intensity,” she says. “There’s something very powerful about that.”

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