Mirror Neurons and Addiction

In 1992, researchers discovered uniquely capable cells, which have since been labeled “mirror neurons”, in the brains of monkeys.  These neurons are cells that can be observed responding the same way when a monkey performs an action, as when the monkey observes the action being performed.  For example, mirror neurons will fire when a monkey picks up a banana, and then again when they observe another monkey picking up a banana. More recently, scientists have confirmed that humans have these same neurons, and they may be involved in memory, emotions, and bonding.  There is still much to learn about mirror neurons and how they affect the way we behave and interact with others, but it may be worth considering this scientifically proven tendency to copy and mimic when discussing substance abuse and addiction

The term “peer pressure” has long been used to describe the situations teenagers often face when it comes to substance abuse.  Adolescence is a difficult time in many ways, and the pressure to fit in can lead to dangerous decisions for many teens. Teens are likely to be confronted with social pressure surrounding drug and alcohol use and may participate to make friends or feel more confident around their peers.  Although less discussed, peer pressure can affect adults just as easily as teenagers, but perhaps in different ways. While adults may be slightly less vulnerable to embarrassment or shaming when deciding whether to do something, spending time in a social group in which everyone else is participating in a particular activity and encouraging you to join in, can have a powerful effect on your behaviors.  Adults are faced with pressure to drink alcohol, for example, at many social and professional functions. Choosing not to participate can leave you feeling as if you are going against the grain, and everyone is going to notice. 

The likelihood of experiencing this effect with alcohol use is high.  Alcohol is everywhere and has become a culturally encouraged norm at social gatherings and celebrations.  One of the reasons many people begin drinking is simply because they are frequently around others who drink.  While most people don’t like to think of themselves as weak-willed or easily influenced, it becomes easier to understand why you may have been persuaded to start using substances when you become aware of how mirror neurons work.  These are the same cells that influence us to smile when we are smiled at and to alter our posture to match the body language of the person we are speaking to. If we are subconsciously making decisions all day long that allow us to seamlessly adapt to our environment and the people in it, it stands to reason that participating in group activities like drinking, or even using drugs, can feel to our brains like a logical choice for survival.

While mirroring may be a determining factor at the beginning of substance use, however, the mirror neuron system is severely inhibited by addiction.  Research has tied mirror neurons to empathy, observing that we often tend to feel the emotions of others. This is why you feel embarrassed while watching someone bomb a performance, or feel excited when seeing someone win a new car.  Some researchers even postulate that extremely empathetic people have a particularly efficient mirror neuron system. Unfortunately, alcohol and drug abuse disrupt this chemical process in the brain, making it difficult and sometimes impossible to empathize with the feelings of others.  This is why people deep in addiction act in selfish ways and hurt those they love without considering their feelings or the consequences their actions may have on the relationship. Many people who have a loved one experiencing addiction will feel as if substance abuse has turned them into a different person entirely when in reality they have just temporarily lost access to some critical brain functions.  

There is still a great deal of research being conducted regarding mirror neurons, and we may see some interesting questions answered in the near future regarding mirroring systems and addiction.  For example, if particularly empathetic people have extremely efficient mirror neuron systems, are those people also more likely to fall into addiction? It seems likely that the tendency to imitate the actions of others as well as the inclination to feel the emotions of others, which may contribute to anxiety and depression, would both be factors increasing the risk of substance abuse.  These ideas are far from being proven, but as we better understand the brain it becomes increasingly clear that addiction is not a character flaw or a moral failing. Substance abuse begins for a complex variety of reasons—including mental health, environment, and genetics—and continues due to the extremely powerful changes that take place in our bodies and brains as a result of addiction.

The good news is that both our bodies and our brains are capable of healing, regardless of how long we have subjected ourselves to substance abuse.  If you or someone you love is struggling with addiction, now is the time to reach out for help. At Burning Tree, you will find knowledgeable and compassionate professionals that structure treatment to fit individual needs, including the identification of co-occurring disorders.  Through accountability and commitment to the 12 steps, each client will develop the tools to create a sober lifestyle and find lasting recovery. We specialize in the treatment of chronic relapsers and believe with the right support you can experience true and permanent healing. For more information, call us now at  866-287-2877  


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