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The Neuroscience of Behind Addiction & Dopamine

By September 9, 2021Neuroscience

Discussing Dopamine and the Neuroscience of Addiction

This article will explore addiction using the science of neuroscience. We’ll start by discussing dopamine because it plays a central role in addiction (and in life, in general). From there we’ll look at addiction itself and its effects on the brain. Finally, we’ll talk about how the cycle of addiction develops, followed by strategies to break addiction once for all.

I’m not going to cover how addiction develops in detail here because there is a series of six articles in our insights that do this well (links to these will be at the bottom of this article). I firmly believe that addiction is a complex subject that requires extensive coverage. So today, we’ll talk about it in context to neuroscience and dopamine.

Why do you ask? Two of my favorite podcasters, Dr. Andrew Huberman and Rich Roll, just interviewed Dr. Anna Lemke, author of Our Dopamine Nation, just did two podcast interviews about this exact topic. Links will be at the end of the article. Depending on how long this post ends up being, I may write a part two to cover addiction in more detail about the podcasts. Both were great and highly recommend watching them.

For now, though, enjoy the neuroscience of addiction!

1. What is an addiction

2. Why is addiction a cycle

3. What is dopamine and what does it do in the brain

4. Breaking the cycle and restoring balance

5. Why breaking the cycle is so difficult for some people

6. Strategies to break this addictive cycle once and for all

1. What is addiction?

A good working definition that everyone seems to agree on is:

“Addiction is a chronic brain disease that causes destructive behaviors despite terrible consequences”. [1]

Let’s break this down: addiction is a brain disease meaning addiction is a biological addiction, not a choice. People with addiction are not bad people who choose to be addicts; they suffer from a disorder that hijacks the dopamine reward pathway in their brains.

The second part of addiction is destructive behaviors despite terrible consequences.

During active addiction, the dopamine reward pathway becomes hypersensitized and hyperactive compared to normal brains. These changes result in a very strong pleasure response when an addict achieves a ‘hit’ (the euphoric feeling that comes from dopamine release in the brain). This means addiction is a learned behavior.

2. Why is addiction a cycle?

Learned behaviors become patterns that form habits. These habits become addictions as they are repeated day after day.

It’s as if addiction is a prisoner being held captive by his dopamine reward pathway. Once he walks so far into the cell of addiction, the addiction ‘warden’ holds the key to the cell, and whenever he lets the addiction out it takes hold of its prisoner and instructs him to do its bidding. This addiction ‘warden’ is so powerful that it becomes addiction’s prisoner.

But addiction isn’t just about addiction to a substance. In fact, addiction can be developed in any type of behavior…

For example, the dopamine reward pathway is involved with many types of addiction including gambling addiction (which develops out of behavioral addiction), video games, and even social media. [2]

3. What is dopamine and what does it do in the brain

Dopamine is a neurotransmitter in the brain that controls the motivation/reward system. Things that are addictive have high levels of dopamine.

Dopamine does many different things including influencing movement and controlling motivation. It also facilitates memory retention and strengthens connections between nerve cells. However, dopamine’s function within addiction is less clear now because addiction has too many symptoms that dopamine can’t be involved with all of these aspects at the same time (e.g., there’s increased sleep during addiction).

4. Breaking the cycle & restoring balance

Dr. Lemke, author of Our Dopamine Nation refers to dopamine levels as regulating and weighing a balance between pain and pleasure of the experience. Our brain will always want to restore the dopamine levels to neutrality. When we have too much of something, our brain works overdrive in the opposite direction to level our system back out. This is why withdrawals happen in any addiction. If this was a normal system of the brain, these behaviors would not cause withdrawals. Withdrawals are evidence addiction is hijacking the dopamine reward pathway in the brain (a disease). [3]

Addiction is often treated as only psychological addiction, one that develops out of mental illness: personality disorders like BPD or severe anxiety disorders. While addiction can develop out of these disorders, addiction is not a mental illness. It’s a chronic brain disease. With this disease, your dopamine reward pathway is hijacked by addiction causing you to think and act in ways you normally never would.

5. Why breaking the cycle is so difficult for some people

Addictive living can develop out of many types of addiction, but addiction very often exists as a cycle that revolves around such cravings and emotional highs. At the heart of addiction lies dopamine, one of the neuromodulators in our brain’s reward pathway system. It’s instructive to look at addiction from two points: 1) addiction is a chronic brain disease that causes destructive behaviors despite terrible consequences; 2) addiction is a warden that literally holds an inmate hostage and compels him to do the bidding of his master (the addiction).

In order to break this addictive cycle oneself, it’s important to understand what sets off the cycle in the first place: tweaking and destroying delicately balanced dopamine levels by taking drugs or engaging in other self-destructive actions.

Avoid addiction at all costs. The high meth can get you is no comparison to the shot your system takes when this type of drug messes with your dopamine levels. As the first of the Four Noble Truths states, Life is suffering. And addiction only proves this Buddhist outlook to be true and makes life so much worse. It is a much wiser decision to stick with healthy choices in repetition.

6. Strategies to Break the Addictive Cycle

1. Acknowledge addiction for what it is – addiction hijacks the dopamine reward pathway in your brain turning you to this insane behavior.

2. Teaching yourself to recognize triggers that set off addictive behavior and avoid these temptations.

3. Detoxing doesn’t mean you’re “cured.” Stress relief and lifestyle changes are critical for a lasting change instead of masking addiction with addiction restart cravings because causes underlying issues to heighten even more (e.g., if anxiety or depression isn’t addressed).

4. Self-talk & mindfulness meditation (meditate on a word, phrase, or prayer) – think about past positive experiences the body can respond positively and release dopamine naturally without cravings. This relaxes the body and can begin bringing balance to your dopamine levels and move addiction out of your life.

5. Get involved in something that makes you feel productive, meaningful, or helpful to those who need it. This will lift your spirits thus elevating dopamine levels naturally without cravings; stay away from self-destructive behaviors that decrease dopamine levels (e.g., addiction).

6. Living addiction-free needs to become the driver for life. Recovery is a daily practice of embodiment. Something that becomes a ritual motion or way of life to truly be able to thrive and feel free. To keep everything you learn in recovery close and to keep your mind open for new learning always.


Addiction is a serious and complex problem that neuroscience offers some insights into. By understanding how addiction hijacks the dopamine reward pathway, you can better understand addiction itself and break this cycle once for all with these strategies.

If you’re struggling with addiction or know someone who does, make sure not to miss out on Dr. Andrew Huberman’s podcast interview with Dr. Anna Lemke, author of Our Dopamine Nation (link below). It goes into detail about how the brain reacts when addicted in addition to other insights into treatment. Rich Roll’s podcast also just release an episode (link below) that could be helpful if you want to help someone overcoming an addiction or help yourself do so as well!

We also discuss these at length and much more inside the platform! Mindful recovery tools, resources, and courses to help you in your self-healing journey. We’re ready and waiting to partner with you on creating a plan that will help get your life back on track while also avoiding relapse in the future. Come join us for free here.

Six Root Causes of Addiction:

  1. Childhood Adversity
  2. Trauma Influences
  3. Neurological Factors
  4. Genes & Epigenetics
  5. Emotional Pain
  6. Environmental Factors

Huberman Lab Podcast: Dr. Anna Lembke: Understanding & Treating Addiction

Rich Roll Podcast: The Neuroscience of Addiction: Our Dopamine Nation