Memoirs of an Addicted Brain: A Neuroscientist Examines His Former Life on Drugs by Marc Lewis. PublicAffairs, 2012

Why do we crave things and seek them compulsively, despite the consequences? As a junkie who kicked the habit and became a neuroscientist, Lewis is uniquely positioned to answer these questions.

Each chapter of Lewis’s memoirs recounts an episode of his life: as a homesick 15-year-old at a prep school in New Jersey, where he got drunk and smoked pot for the first time; then as a Berkeley undergraduate during the hippie heyday of the late 1960s, when he experimented with methamphetamines, LSD and heroin. In the jungles of Malaysia he sniffed nitrous oxide and bought heroin directly from the factory, and in Calcutta he frequented opium dens. Back in his hometown of Toronto, Lewis descended into a life of addiction, desperation and petty crime.

Lewis also weaves in how each drug acts on the brain. LSD, he explains, alters sensory information, so that “perception opens up into this massive cascade of colors, shapes and patterns,” whereas heroin produces a dramatic shift in brain physiology to put one “into a state of safety, comfort, warmth [and] pleasure.” The book effortlessly explores the experience of being under their influence. Lewis explains how cycles of anticipation and reward are fundamental to the human condition, drawing parallels between drug addiction and our cravings, such as sex, money or material goods. Drug addiction, however, is far more powerful, as it mercilessly hijacks the brain’s reward circuitry, priming us to single-mindedly seek out these chemical rewards at the expense of relationships and work. Lewis eventually climbed out of addiction and returned to school to focus on psychology and neuroscience. “Drawn by a need to understand my own dark years, I came around—full circle—to study the neuroscience of addiction,” he writes.

Even after 30 years of being clean, addicts’ brains are wired to desire narcotics, leaving them “vulnerable for the rest of their lives.” For Lewis, filling his life with a meaningful career and a loving family has helped him resist those temptations.

 

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