Addiction is like riding a bike

This video was sent to me by Shaun Shelly, a frequent contributor to this blog. It conveys how a well-practiced “mind set” can end up being so much more than a momentary wrong turn. It can be an iceberginescapable ride on a vehicle that’s about to crash. And it can have a vast nonverbal dimension that is entirely  invisible. Like an iceberg, most of its mass is probably below the surface.

I’m talking about addiction, of course. We want to understand how we can shift from one “you” to the other “you.” That was the theme of my post a couple of weeks ago. But the craving self is so thoroughly sculpted in brain tissue, so overpowering in the moment, that it’s difficult if not impossible to just shift out of it. We want to turn it off like a buzzing light bulb, and we keep flicking the switch, and nothing happens. You can’t switch it off because it is a stable, learned pattern that arises in mind and brain whenever drugs or booze are present.

Okay, so watch the video, then we’ll talk. (The creator, whose name sounds like “Destin,” comes across pretty manic, but don’t let that stop you.)

Destin has learned a pattern of motor responses triggered by the sensory information that comes from getting on and riding a bike. As have most of us. The trouble is….it’s the wrong pattern for his particular bike. Every time he tries to ride, the sensory information (feel of the handle bars, changes in the visual field with motion, tilting of the bike with gravity) triggers his well-learned motor response pattern — without his say-so. Even his intense cognitive efforts can’t change it: “Knowledge is not understanding.”

But it’s the “wrong” pattern. So he continues to fall.

There are a few places we can go with this.

(We could consider his weird bike to be analogous to addiction…..In which case we’d say it took him a long time to  get addicted — and once he got it, he found it hard to unlearn. He finally manages it 6 minutes into the clip.)

But let’s keep it simple. Let’s imagine that the way he learned to ride a normal bike all those years is like learning an addictive mental habit. It became ingrained. When he wanted to shuck that habit, he couldn’t. It was too well learned.

liquor storeFor Destin and for addicts, the ingrained habit comes to life in a matter of moments. The cues for the bike rider are the sensory inputs I mentioned above. For the addict as well, sensory inputs can be hazardous. That’s why you don’t drive past the liquor store or chat dealeron the phone with your former dope partner if you’re serious about staying abstinent. But addicts don’t need to experience that inflow of sensory information. All they have to do is bring the image to mind. Remember how great it felt, fondle that memory, taste it, and then the craving explodes to the surface.

We could consider how anxiety itself amplifies the cascade that leads to the fall for Destin — how the first glimmer of imbalance is enough to propel the motor movements that will rapidly defeat him. Not much different from addiction at all. To paraphrase Frank Herbert’s Dune, anxiety is the mind-killer.

start of fallWhat holds the pattern so firmly in place for the bike rider is the urgency of turning the handlebars to offset the first hint of imbalance. That urgency is the middleman that sends the messages to the muscles…turn the handlebars this way, which is sure to complete the disaster. For addicts, what holds the pattern in place is also urgency — but it’s entirely mental, not physical (except in the case of physical withdrawal symptoms). The addict doesn’t need physical uncertainty to propel the wrong moves, just emotional uncertainly, which accelerates to urgency, which rapidly calls up habitual responses: I want it, yes, I really do, just this one time, I deserve it, I’m going to do it, and it’ll be all right.

In addiction, the urgency, craving, desire, whatever you want to call it, is the psychological product of dopamine flooding particular synapses in the striatum. But I’ve told that story elsewhere. For now, what’s most important is that, once the habitual pattern arises on each occasion, two things happen:

  1. We are lost, at least this time around, we’re going to fall — unless we’re really clever and we’ve already been practicing bail-out techniques.
  2. The pattern, having overtaken our nervous system yet again, is reinforced in our synapses, and thus more likely to arise in the future.fallen

There’s one more point that I hope you’ve noticed: Destin finally did learn to take control of his riding pattern, to rid himself of the habitual response set that led inevitably to a crash. But it took practice! Five minutes a day, for eight months! The moral is simple: well-learned brain algorithms need not be permanent. You can change them, especially if they’re not working for you. But it takes time and it takes practice.



21 thoughts on “Addiction is like riding a bike

  1. Shaun Shelly April 27, 2015 at 2:08 pm #

    Thanks Marc for posting – think this video is pretty useful in explaining the “natural” process of addiction and gives a good idea of how to move beyond addiction. What I also found interesting was how quick it was for him to “re-learn” to ride the normal bike (comparatively) – 20mins.

    Reminds me of the wheat field analogy I have regularly referred to – the path walked becomes the bath known, in spite of the wrong destination getting reached, and that “rut” is hard to get out of (we spoke about this in a post from last year i think).

    Hope this video sparks some debate!

    • Marc April 28, 2015 at 4:47 am #

      HI Shaun. Thanks for sharing this. I find it to be a fascinating analogy.

      As you say, he got back to the “normalized” path very easily. It only took an hour or two. Indeed, the well-practiced path can become home, even after a break, no matter how destructive it is. Then the effort to tamp down the other paths (through the wheat field — yes I remember it well) has to be greater, sometimes even heroic.

  2. Beth@WeightMaven April 27, 2015 at 4:07 pm #

    You write “You can’t switch [the craving self] off because it is a stable, learned pattern that arises in mind and brain whenever drugs or booze are present.” Is it a semantic quibble [or wrong?] to say it’s not really the drugs or booze that are the problems but our *thoughts* about them that are? That certainly seems supported by your later point that the addict only needs “emotional uncertainly, which accelerates to urgency, which rapidly calls up habitual responses” which leads to use.

    I mention this because I’ve recently come across The Wisdom to Know the Difference, a book that looks at addiction through the lens of the acceptance and commitment therapy psychological model. Per ACT def on their site, it “illuminates the ways that language entangles clients into futile attempts to wage war against their own inner lives.”

    The emphasis on mindfulness brings to mind Buddhism and insight meditation, the emphasis on values and commitment brings to mind Peele’s approach wrt treatment. I don’t understand it well enough (yet) to explain it in a comment, but I thought it compelling enough to mention it!

    • Marc April 28, 2015 at 6:12 am #

      Hi Beth. I like ACT….and I agree that the approach has much in common with my emphasis on the thinking and feeling cascade that leads to repeated using. No, it’s not a semantic quibble and it’s certainly not wrong to say that the thoughts are the problem, not the drugs or booze.

      I think there are a million ways to support this, including Peele’s contention that most people use drugs or alcohol without becoming addicts. But it’s critical to keep this message out there, in order to counter the position of NIDA (still!) that drugs or booze are the causes of addiction.

      (I’ll remove the fragments of your other garbled messages.)

      • Beth@WeightMaven April 29, 2015 at 5:16 pm #

        I am *completely* with you re the NIDA position … this concept is spilling over into the food addiction space (sugar more addictive than cocaine anyone?) with very problematic results IMO.

        And thanks for the clean up ;).

    • Cheryl April 29, 2015 at 5:02 pm #

      So glad you did because it is huber compelling and will be looking into it closer.

      • Cheryl April 29, 2015 at 5:23 pm #

        Beth, my first response was in regard to all that you wrote being compelling. I wasn’t real clear 😉

  3. Gary April 28, 2015 at 6:52 am #

    I just wanted to comment on the video regarding the “Backwards bike”. For me the bike represented what “recovery” or “discovery” might be like for many in that it would be foreign and/or unfamiliar, at first, but with persistance it would be possible to overcome. When it comes to addiction it’s not necessarily the drug itself, or alone, that causes addiction but the value the users gives to the rush and/or experience. Without question, dopamine plays a role and so the pleasure that I feel will be an important factor in repeat use. However, once addicted, an image is painted on my brain with such defined brush strokes that it seduces my senses just by thinking about using. The thought of using, for me, was always much more exciting than actually using and dealing with the consquences. For me, I can compare it to an unopened gift, I’ve always prolonged the opening of a gift because once revealed its over, the mystery, the not knowing etc. However, once I understood the mechanisms of addiction, how it seduced my thinking, embraced it then I was set free. Forcing myself to stay away didn’t work on its own. Change is very paradoxical, once I admitted that I was a prisoner the door opened, this was my experience.

  4. Cheng Li-shueh April 28, 2015 at 12:23 pm #

    As a relative newcomer to this blog, it’s frustrating to agree with your main point (in this case, change is possible, but it’s hard) while disagreeing with some of the off-hand statements you make.

    For example: “For addicts, what holds the pattern in place is also urgency — but it’s entirely mental, not physical (except in the case of physical withdrawal symptoms).”

    That’s an awfully big exception for a parenthetical mention. Kinda like saying we eat for the “entirely mental” experience, except, of course, for the minor matter of ever-worsening physical hunger pangs.

    How many addicts don’t face withdrawal? Late-stage addicts face it every day. I certainly did. I also worked for several years in a rehab, seeing hundreds of incoming patients and only a handful came in sober. All the rest suffered withdrawal. Continued using isn’t only driven by the anticipation of pleasure, it’s also driven by the overwhelming (and exaggerated) fear of withdrawal.

    For example: “…it’s certainly not wrong to say that the thoughts are the problem, not the drugs or booze….”

    Isn’t it BOTH the thoughts and the drugs or booze? How can they be separated out? Aren’t the most powerful triggers reminders of alcohol/drug use? They wouldn’t be triggers if not for the connection to drugs or alcohol. It’s internally inconsistent to say alcohol isn’t the problem while simultaneously cautioning “you don’t drive past the liquor store.” Why don’t you drive past the liquor store? It’s not to avoid the snack section. It’s the booze. Drugs and/or alcohol are (at least) a big part of the problem and to dismiss them so blithely runs counter to the day-to-day experience of addicts.

    For example: “…it’s critical to keep this message out there, in order to counter the position of NIDA (still!) that drugs or booze are the causes of addiction.”

    That’s not a fair representation. What NIDA says is that addiction occurs in a minority of people who have a genetic predisposition for it AND who encounter enough negative environmental conditions to activate that potential. NIDA doesn’t say that drugs or booze, ALONE and without regard to genetic and environmental contributors, causes addiction.

    • Marc April 28, 2015 at 12:32 pm #

      Hi and welcome. I understand withdrawal from personal experience. But some drugs leave very minor, if any, withdrawal symptoms yet are still highly addictive. Coke, crack, and meth are the best examples. So I think it’s important to keep our bookkeeping on track. I’m talking about addiction — in general.

      Is it “both” the thoughts and the drugs or booze? Yes, for those addictions. But behavioral addictions look very similar in life and in the lab….yet they are not caused by substances at all. Gambling addiction is ONLY caused by thoughts, not substances. Yet it destroys lives much the way substance addictions do. So let’s find the common denominator.

      Re NIDA, long story, but Nora Volkow (director of NIDA) really does continue to pitch this message in her talks. She says it’s the drugs that are destroying the brain. I don’t know how we can ignore the gist of this assumption.

      • Cheng Li-shueh April 28, 2015 at 1:45 pm #

        Yes, coke, crack and meth addiction involves less difficult withdrawal than alcohol and opiates, but try telling my coke and meth-addict friends their withdrawal was “minor, if any” and they’ll laugh in your face. It may be objectively less painful from the perspective of doctors and researchers, but to a meth or coke addict it’s still terrible, and the fear of it drives use as much if not more than the anticipation of pleasure.

        I think its too far a stretch to completely equate behavioral addictions with chemical ones for the very reason you cite: the introduction of powerful psychoactive substances. Behavioral addictions may involve “natural” or “normal’ brain changes, but drug-induced dopamine spikes are not normal, natural rewards, they’re artificial.

        I also disagree when you say gambling addiction is caused ONLY by thoughts. My gambling-addict friends say winning and losing MONEY has a lot to do with it.

        There are certainly some common denominators in all addictions, but there are also important differences, including: (as mentioned) the difference between behavioral and drug addictions; the difference between addiction to acutely toxic drugs that, due to ever-increasing tolerance propels users toward a fatal overdose and non-acutely-toxic drugs (marijuana, nicotine) that don’t; and the differences between early, mid- and late-stage addictions.

        Each of these differences impact treatment, so imho, they shouldn’t be minimized.

        Re: NIDA, I’ve read a lot of Volkow’s writing and looked at many videos of her discussing addiction and have never come away with the message you attribute to her; she’s much more nuanced than that.

        Finally, how do you square saying drugs aren’t the problem with calling coke, crack and meth “highly addictive?” Or am I making too much of semantics?

        • Marc April 28, 2015 at 1:58 pm #

          Of course winning and losing money is critical to gambling addiction. As mediated by thoughts and feelings.

          You’re making too much of a few things.

        • Matt April 28, 2015 at 5:27 pm #

          Hi there….

          Just curious if you’ve ever experienced an addictive behavior yourself.

  5. Cheryl April 29, 2015 at 4:59 pm #

    Interesting! Would have been more interesting if I’d have seen both sexes try.

    • Marc April 30, 2015 at 2:36 pm #

      Hard to fit on one bike…

  6. Matt May 1, 2015 at 7:00 am #

    A compelling thing in that video for me was how fast his old habit pattern came back in Amsterdam. That’s how relapse works, and why we go down so fast. While trying to relearn how to ride a normal bike, Destin observes, “I’m already two levels deep into this.” Two levels deep but the habit pattern was still there to fall into– and his brain re-calibrated fast. This seems so cognitively complicated: rerouting all the necessary perceptual and conceptual formulations, and I wondered if there was a term for it. Is there? The closest thing I found that captured it for me was “counter-conceptual interposition.” And it’s not from psychology. It’s from gaming, and I’m not a gamer. But the individual meanings of the words makes sense. “intermingling” or “interuption” might be clearer. Anyway, it seems like some kind of lurching rail switch involving jillions of neurons.

    This emotional teeter-totter of feeling imbalanced often led me to seemingly ridiculous associations. At one point during my last struggle, I actually was convinced I was addicted to rehab. Was it my addiction trying to come through the backdoor and reassert itself? “This is way more expensive in time and money. Let’s get out of here.” Or was the gradual acceptance that I had an addiction just making me hyper-aware and over-emotional? Probably a transitional mish-mosh feeding my emotional roller coaster that was headed for a tortuous series of rail switches…

    • Marc May 2, 2015 at 9:14 am #

      Hi Matt. I was intrigued by this too. He “fell” back into his old pattern after only 20 minutes…I think it was…of pushing himself in that direction. So indeed the analogy with addiction is the rapid return to the addictive mind set even after intense efforts — and success — in changing it.

      When explaining this to my class, I used the Necker cube as an example of how small shifts in attention or focus can radically alter one’s perceptual set — like other optical illusions. The best way of thinking about this: there are two “attractors” — a term from nonlinear dynamics — they are mutually incompatible, but the system “knows” them both really well. So when you “perturb” the system, it can swing from one to the other. Actually, that’s exactly how brains work. That’s how you can switch from a preoccupation with a piece of writing to suddenly thinking about dinner. The switch is quick and clean.

    • Marc May 2, 2015 at 9:14 am #

      I just inserted a Necker cube at the bottom of the post. Take a look!

  7. NN May 6, 2015 at 11:17 pm #

    Hi Marc,
    The reversed bicycle analogy seems to capture some of the feature of addiction rather well. It fails however to account for a number of well know facts, those of the sort found by Robins in her famous studies. To put it in a nutshell, the Vietnam vets ability to quit AND their ability to stay that way, often, despite ‘slips’ run counter to the
    essential part of the bicycle analogy. In general the analogy proposes the difficulty
    and irremediability of ‘addiction’ in too extreme a way, not unlike the efforts Robins mentions, of Hyman, to argue, as many do that brains are almost irreversibily rewired in addiction.

    Robins, Lee, 1993, Addiction 88, 1041-1054.
    Vietnam veterans rapid recovery from heroin addiction:
    A fluke or normal expectation.

    [Robins’ word in double quotes, my linking summary without.]

    The Robins findings were interpreted (and minimized) by some
    to indicate that “men addicted in Vietnam would not relapse because they
    would not be re exposed in the US to stimuli associated
    with their drug use….”

    “The theory fails to account for the fact that among the one half of the
    Vietnam addicts who did use heroin after their return, most
    did not become re addicted and those who did become
    addicted were addicted only briefly. Only one fourth of those re
    addicted at the time of their first interview at 7-10 months were addicted
    at any time in the next 2 years…. few had positive urines at either
    the first or second follow up interview.”

    Later Robins study 1991 (Epidemiologic Catchment) found “Substance abuse
    had the shortest mean duration of any of the psychiatric disorders–
    only 2.7 years.”

    Of Robins’ group. “Their brief history of addiction followed by spontaneous
    recovery, both in VN and afterwards is not out of line with American
    experience, only American beliefs.”

    Late in the article Robins criticized Hyman’s 1992 article claiming
    addiction is irreversible based on brain physiology–permanent
    changes in dopamine and related circuits. Hyman claimed
    ” ‘Opiates tap into a critical circuit in the ventral tegmental area. …
    with repetitive use the brain reward system undergoes adaptive
    changes involving…dopamine. When the drug is taken away,
    these neurons now function abnormally… for many years.’ “

  8. Brian Kerrigan November 30, 2015 at 3:45 am #

    One missing part to switching from one set of thinking to the other:

    When Destin, in 20-minutes, re-learned his original bike riding behavior, how INTENTIONAL was it?

    How intensely did he desire to re-create the path?

    I think he had a good degree of motivation to relearn. This would be like a sober or clean addict intentionality trying to get themselves addicted again. That’s very different then a mere slip up or run in with the addictive behavior/substance; that’s a full blown masochistic relapse. It’s running full bore for not just the pleasure of the addiction but acting to intentionally become addicted, addiction as the goal destination, premeditatively.

    All said, the analogy is a model of reality, not reality itself so not everything fits perfectly.

    • T October 18, 2018 at 10:38 pm #

      Or what if….
      Before learning to ride a bike (as a child for instance) is our our initial non-addicted or non- polluted brain self. Learning to ride a bike is like our brain acquiring patterns over a span of years as us addicts do…. we learn a pattern. So riding a normal bike is like how our brain has normalized addictive brain patterns. Then learning to ride the weird bike is like recovery…. its a long and tough process to unlearn what we’ve trained our brains to learn but it can be done. But the warning is when he tries to ride the normal bike again and it does not happen immediately but he does relearn much faster than learning the weird bike. This is saying that through long term recovery our brains can return to our normal ( or child like) patterns but through the brain rewiring due to addiction we can much more quickly (and also) return to the learned addictive patterns (normal bike riding) which is the relapse analogy. I know I’m not getting into level of neuro detail as above but just wanted to share a perspective from a non substance recovering addict. Thanks for sharing. I’ve thought about the reverse bicycle analogy for a while but reading some comments here helped me to articulate some things in my own mind.

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