Free Will and the Science of Addiction

Apr 21, 2022

Ask almost any doctor, psychiatrist, or drug rehab counselor how they would classify addiction, and they most likely will say it’s a disease. And they would be correct. The American Society of Addiction Medicine defines addiction as a chronic brain disorder. It’s a chronic disease no different than diabetes, cancer, or Cystic Fibrosis.

That’s not to say our free will doesn’t play a significant role in our addiction, as well as in our recovery. It does. We are the ones who choose to use drugs or take a drink for the first time. The choice to seek treatment, likewise, most often lies with us.

Causes of Addiction

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Causes of Addiction

So what is the difference between a person who can enjoy a few drinks without any issues and a person who can’t stop until they’re throwing up, passed out, or in the hospital? While researchers have yet to determine the cause or cure for addiction, they generally agree on several conditions that predispose someone to these dangerous habits, including genetics, environment, mental illness, and early use.

Your genes determine how fast your body metabolizes drugs, the number and types of brain receptors you have, and how you respond positively to specific medications. Thus, your genetic makeup accounts for between 40 and 60 percent of your overall addiction risk, according to a 2020 article from the National Institute on Drug Abuse.

Couple that with environmental risk factors such as parental substance abuse, a chaotic home life, peer pressure, mental illness, or substance use while the brain is still developing (under the age of 25), and it’s easy to see how just one hit or drink can set somebody on a course to addiction.

Choices and Consequences

Whether you started using to mask emotional pain, feel better about yourself, or go along with the crowd, the advent of your addiction was a conscious choice. This is probably the main reason for so much guilt and shame associated with substance abuse. “Of course, this is all my fault because I’m the one who picked up the glass and drank,” we say to ourselves.

But that’s only part of the story. And, unfortunately, it’s at this point where many in society, including ourselves, end the tale and lay all the blame and responsibility on the user for everything that comes after that first encounter with substance use.

What we fail to realize is how drinking or drugs change our brain chemistry to the point where our ability to make sound, logical choices becomes severely impaired. Brain imaging studies have shown in real-time how drugs and alcohol use can destroy gray matter and alter brain structure, metabolism, and cognition to affect memory, judgment, learning, and self-control.

The Brain’s Reward System

Our brains have a system that doles out ‘rewards’ in the form of pleasurable feelings for specific actions, and dopamine is the chemical messenger or neurotransmitter responsible for those enjoyable sensations. For example, the reward center, located in the front of the brain, will release dopamine when you eat a delicious bite of food, drive your favorite car, or when you find out you got the job. These are called natural rewards.

Initial drug use taps into that system by creating an intense and overflowing rush of dopamine in your brain, often referred to as a ‘high.’ Drug and alcohol rewards are much more intense than natural rewards and create a greater flow of dopamine. Using feels good, so our brains learn to like substances and depend on them.

As substance use increases, the brain will compensate for the excessive dopamine production by shutting down dopamine receptors. This translates to less of a dopamine bang for each hit, leaving your body wanting more. Suddenly, you must start using more often or move on to harder drugs to get the same high or even to feel relatively normal.

With this in mind, it’s not hard to imagine how a well-to-do mother could completely drain her family’s bank account to feed her opioid addiction, or why a man would destroy every vital relationship he has to devote all his time and energy to get his next drink.

You Can Choose Recovery

As science suggests, quitting substance abuse is not just a matter of willpower. It’s all about finding the right addiction recovery center to help your body detox and teach your brain new ways to reward itself.

This leads us back to free will – we may not be able to choose to quit using by ourselves, but we certainly can choose to seek recovery. In fact, our realization that life is out of our control and that we must seek help represents the first step toward lasting sobriety.

If you or a loved one needs help battling a substance use addiction, learn more about our faith based drug rehab center in Utah. Visit or call us at (855) 736-7262.


Free Will and the Science of Addiction