The following is an interesting blog post from Derek Madden, a recovering alcoholic who helps grow the sober community with IAmSoberApp.com. All views expressed in this article are solely those of the author and do not represent those of the Cognitive Psychiatry staff. CPCH is not responsible and does not verify for accuracy any of the information contained in the article. The author’s views are not to be taken as medical advice or the opinion of our board-certified psychiatrists.
“The problem is I don’t want a drink, I want ten drinks.”
-Leo McGarry (“Take Out the Trash Day.” The West Wing, Season 1, Episode 13)
Years ago, before I was educated on addiction, I’d used this line from The West Wing to describe alcoholism. Most people respond the same way, “Why can’t you just stop?” It’s a sincere enough question that unfortunately perpetuates a myth about alcoholics: that it’s a choice; that we can have one drink and call it a day. Our minds don’t work like that and renown psychologist, Daniel Kahneman has evidence of this.
Daniel Kahneman won the Nobel Peace Prize in Economics in 2002, but that was far from his only achievement. In 2011, he was listed as one of the top thinkers in the world and in 2015, he was listed as the 7th most influential economist. Needless to say, he’s distinguished himself in cognitive psychology and behavioral economics. And, while he admits memory isn’t altogether reliable, he recalls a unique moment from his childhood that started him down this path.
As a Jewish-Israeli living in Nazi-occupied France during World War II, Kahneman broke curfew to play with a friend. On his way home, he turned his sweater inside out (to hide the Star of David) when he was stopped by a German soldier. His blood ran cold, fearful that the soldier would turn him in… but instead the soldier picked him up, hugged him, showed a picture of a boy in his wallet, and gave him some money before letting Kahneman head home. Allegedly, even at the time, Daniel Kahneman believed people were complicated and not as “rational” as many would come to believe we are.
One of Kahneman’s most interesting research topics is the dual processes of the mind – in fact, in 2011 he would publish an entire book dedicated to it, titled Thinking, Fast and Slow. The idea is that people have two parts to their thinking: conscious and unconscious; slow and fast; deliberate and impulsive. The deliberate is the slow, thoughtful part of your brain that’s essential in long-term planning while the impulsive is the fast, effortless part of your brain that thrives on immediate gratification. That’s not to say the impulsive brain is bad. These components work best in people when they’re working in harmony with one another.
The example Daniel Kahneman gives in his book is a drawing of a woman looking mildly disgruntled. The impulsive part of your brain should be able to pick up those facial queues as she’s walking towards you so you can anticipate what to say or – and perhaps more importantly – what not to say. This demonstrates how the brain works “fast” in assessing a situation. Meanwhile, the example he gives for the deliberate part of your brain is “17 X 24”. The answer isn’t immediately obvious and if some multiple choice answers were provided (129, 1247, 408, 568), you’d be able to eliminate the first two pretty quickly, but “568” would not be immediately cleared. The mind slows down, works through the problem, and finds a solution.
The harmony between the two is important and seems to be the case with most healthy individuals. Where people struggle is when one part of the brain is dominating the other and, in the case of alcoholics, the fast and impulsive part of the brain is winning.
Immediate Gratification & Addiction
The problem with the fast part of the brain is that it’s busy thinking about the immediate rewards. After the first drink, it’s thinking about the next drink.
This I’ve found is the best way of describing addiction to people uneducated or unfamiliar. When a healthy person orders a drink at the bar, the deliberate/slow brain is thinking, looking at the time, determining how much they can drink at this moment to be able to sober up and drive home or if they’ll need to call a cab. The deliberate mind is thinking what time they need to wake up the next day and if it’s a good idea to call it a night after this drink. The alcoholic meanwhile is thinking “How long until they bring me my drink?” The alcoholic has an imbalance where the impulsive brain is dominating the thought processes.
So while a healthy person can order a drink and utilize slow and fast thinking to know when to call it quits, an alcoholic needs to retrain their brain and it doesn’t work once a drink is ordered and the dominant, impulsive force takes over. The deliberate brain needs to start from a distance, thinking what will happen if one drink is ordered.
As with The West Wing quote (and ensuing dialogue), many people fail to understand what an addict or alcoholic is, but that’s where Daniel Kahneman can come in. The distinction between the two thought processes helps showcase how we think and what happens when an imbalance sets in.
Derek Madden is a writer, web developer, and recovering alcoholic. He lives in Seattle, Washington and helps grow a sober community with IAmSoberApp.com. He enjoys reading, hiking, yoga, and is a sucker for Winston Churchill quotes, “Kites rise highest against the wind, not with it.”