2.3 Central questions in addiction
Arising out of these issues, it is possible to define questions central to a study of addiction. Take time to consider and answer these questions:
The scope of addiction. For example, to what sorts of substances and situations might a person be described as ‘addicted’?
The circumstances under which a person will become an addict. Is a tendency to become addicted inherent in the properties of certain substances or is environmental context important? When does a person become an addict?
The problems that come from trying to define the term ‘addiction’. We all use this term in our everyday speech (for example, we might talk about addiction to work, food, sex or golf), but what does this mean? What are the defining features of an addictive behaviour?
The criteria for using the term ‘addiction’ are not always as scientific as we might like; they also involve moral, legal, social and economic considerations.
What is it like to be an addict? For example, how does it feel? Do addicts have normal emotions? What do addicts think about? How much insight does an addict have regarding his/her own behaviour? To what extent do addicts adhere to ‘social conventions’? Should treatment for alcohol addiction involve a strict policy of total abstinence or a regime of controlled alcohol intake?
What are the biological and neurological bases of addiction? Are there certain parts of the brain that have a particular role in addiction? Are there particular natural chemicals in the brain that play a special role in addiction? Is addiction a disease? Can these natural chemicals be altered to prevent addiction?
How have different theories and models been applied to addiction? How successful have these applications been or are they currently too abstract? Are such theories of addiction mutually incompatible, or does each theory contain some truth? How can we reconcile or unify the different theories?
Are there genes that ‘predispose’ an individual towards addiction? What do we mean by ‘predispose’ and how does any such predisposition interact with other factors? Can we use genetics to predict who's at risk of addiction (genetic screening). Might we eventually be able to predict what substances or activities a ‘susceptible’ individual will be preferentially addicted to at particular stages in their lives? Will it be possible to modify genes to affect addictive behaviours?
In summary, the principal themes within addiction can be summarised by the key questions listed below.
What is an addiction?
What defines an addict?
What biological, neurological, physiological, psychological, social and genetic factors underlie addiction? How are these factors interrelated?
To what extent can addictive behaviours be predicted and altered?
What will future research reveal about the nature of addiction and addictive behaviour?
We will explore some of these questions in the articles in Section 3.