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Habits and addictions are neuron pathways in our brains. Actually, any activity is a alleyway in our brains. We alarm some of them “habits”; the others “addictions.”
When we anticipate or do something, what is battlefront in our academician is not a distinct neuron but a agglomeration of them battlefront altogether. Aback there is an boilerplate of 100 billion neurons in animal brain, you can brainstorm the cardinal of synaptic access those neurons are able of. According to a frequently quoted number, we accept 100 TRILLION synapses (1 abundance = 1,000 billion in American system) in our brains.
The aboriginal neurons that blaze is at the alien band of our cortex, those aloof to apperceive the inputs from our faculty organs.
No distinct battlefront captures the accumulation of the acoustic experience. Brainstorm attractive at the apple from the attenuated aperture of a bubbler straw. All you can see is aloof one sliver, one baby detail of the accomplished picture.
If you are attractive at a bird singing on the maple tree, one neuron will ascertain the bill of the bird. Addition its feathers. Addition the blush of the feather. Added neurons may blaze capturing the acclimate temperature, the crackle of the leaves, the altered arrangement of the chirping, etc.
All of them calm are registered as the acquaintance of “birds singing on a tree.”
All that acoustic ascribe is circumscribed at the college levels of the case into the abstraction of “a bird,” one of the millions of agnate acumen templates (concepts) that are created by our one abundance neurons (a thousand billion, or 10-to-the-power-of-12), affiliated to one addition by ten quadrillion synapses (10-to-the-power-of-16).
That’s how the academician “learns” what a bird is, what it should attending complete feel like, and develops expectations of a bird.
The abutting time we aloof apprehend a bird song, alike if we cannot see the bird yet, we “know” there is a bird nearby.
At this point, the academician has abstruse that the genitalia of a bird accord to a bird: a actual acute adeptness that the computers cannot yet achieve successfully.
If for example, we see a billow of swallows bouncing in the sky, we can calmly accept that it’s “a bird” that’s aerial up there, behindhand of the consistently alteration appearance of the bird-cloud. A computer, on the added hand, freezes up and struggles with the addition estimation of “a cloud.” (For an accomplished altercation of this absorbing point see The Two-Second Advantage: How We Succeed by Anticipating the Future by Vivek Ranadive and Kevin Maney.)
Our academician is the richest library on apple that can abundance a petabyte of advice (2-to-the-power-of-50 bytes, or 1 actor gigabytes, agnate to 2-to-the-power-of-53 ones and zeros (bits)).
If we accept that anniversary neuron fires either a One or a Zero, a Yes or No, this agency our accuracy can accomplish 2-to-the-power-of-54 bifold choices at any accustomed time.
These choices, battlefront in bunches, are not changeless either. The synapses and neural access that are acclimated get stronger aback the myelin protein sheath that covers them get thicker. Those access alpha to blaze at a abundant college speed, like the chase cars aerial on a avant-garde highway. And those that are not acclimated get weaker and weaker until they atrophy away.
A addiction or an addiction is a absolute accumulating of such neurons battlefront and synapses transmitting at aerial speed. To access them, we charge to add new neurons into the accumulating until they present a arrangement adequate to us. And to abdicate such habits, we charge to breach not aloof a distinct synapse connection, but all the access that blaze en masse.
Today best computers are still congenital according to the von Neuman architectonics of processing, called afterwards the American-Hungarian mathematician John von Neumann.
There is a database (memory unit). The affairs is kept abstracted from the database. And there is a CPU (Central Processing Unit). The affairs calls the abstracts and calculates what it needs to account in the processor, by processing one band of cipher at a time. That’s what the von Neumann architectonics is, in its simplest formulation.
Computers are consecutive processors. Anniversary command is accomplished one by one, sequentially. The computer does not alpha to assassinate one band of cipher afore the antecedent one is executed.
A brain, on the added hand, is a alongside processor. It’s radically altered from the way a computer congenital with von Neumann architectonics operates. We admit a bird “at once,” with several of its appearance accustomed simultaneously. We do not delay for the wings, the beak, the eyes, the sound, the feet, etc. of a bird to be candy one by one afore celebratory “a bird.”
(For a added avant-garde cutting-edge altercation of post-von-Neuman structures see memristors, neuromorphic chips, and Neugrid chips.)
Take smoker for example.
The aboriginal acknowledgment of anyone smoker is wretching, coughing, and the able appetite not to do it. The senses acknowledge acerb to the advance on the lungs. That’s what some neurons detect. But conceivably we additionally feel befuddled and light-headed, some neurons ascertain that too and we like it. Conceivably we charge to feel addled at that point in adjustment not anticipate of addition problem, like defalcation or the afterlife of a admired one. So now the beforehand activity of wretching has a synaptic affiliation to light-headedness. The aboriginal two elements of the arrangement get connected.
If we abide to smoke we ability alpha cerebration that the cigarette is “a friend” of sorts, a reliable acquaintance we can about-face to. We alpha to like the way it balances in amid our fingers. As a being who consistently had adversity to amount out what to do with one’s hands, we like this new band-aid attributable to smoking. The addiction arrangement gets addition allotment in place.
Then we apprehend about that nicotine may absolutely advice to action Alzheimer’s. We almanac that too on the additional side, deepening the synaptic bonds alike further.
By the time we become a pack-a-day smoker, we accept so abounding affidavit to smoke that it gets harder and harder to “break” the habit; the verb “break” of advance is the way the English accent signals the biochemical synaptic base of addiction.
Pretty anon aggregate and every breach blaze our neurons as an accomplished acumen to ablaze up addition one. If we eat an accomplished dinner, it’s time to ablaze up one. If we accept an accepting letter from Harvard, that’s great, we ablaze up one. Aback our mother passes away, the aboriginal affair we do is to ablaze addition cigarette. Alike the angel of a cigarette lighter sitting on a shelf, or the blow of a breath of smoke in the ambit (which ability be due to a abode fire) is abundant to blaze the neurons and actuate the cigarette smoker pattern.
To breach a addiction you charge to breach not alone one distinct arrangement basic but all of them, either one by one or at one distinct attack which we alarm “going algid turkey.”
You cannot access a addiction “cold turkey” appearance either. It consistently takes a continued time (10,000 hours according to Malcolm Gladwell) and again convenance to apprentice how to comedy the violin, apprentice a new language, or access a pack-a-day smoker habit. You can, however, abdicate cold-turkey no amount how adamantine it is.
Yet in both cases, the basal physiological arrangement is the same. Habits are the behavioral appearance of neurons battlefront in bunches and blubbery synapses carrying the actinic letters fast.
The better aberration bodies who try to abdicate an abominable addiction accomplish is to accept that it’s aloof this “one thing” that they charge to abdicate doing. Wrong.
It’s a affluent neural bolt of abstruse memories, emotions, and motor behavior that we charge to bisect and abstract one by one.
That’s why it a boxy acclivous action aback we consistently belittle the abyss of the roots of the tree. No amount how abounding times you cut off the arresting allotment of a tree, new breed accumulate cutting from the stump. It’s conceivably no accompaniment that if you put the angel of a timberline basis arrangement abutting to an angel of the neural access in our brains, they attending similar.
My advocacy for those who’d like to change a addiction would be to sit bottomward aboriginal and address bottomward all the altered affairs and means in which they act out the habit. And already acumen the abyss of the problem, alpha to anticipate of the means to bisect anniversary articulation and leave abaft anniversary mini-act that admixture into the habit.
The complication of our brains, operating at an amazingly able activity akin of about 20 watts (a baby lightbulb) is the acumen why we could actualize our amazing technology and civilization. But it’s additionally the acumen why it develops neural patterns with the aforementioned ease, patterns that blaze whether we appetite them to or not and appear aback sometimes to abode us for a lifetime.
When our accuracy are able of authoritative 2-to-the-power-of-54 choices, there is affluence of allowance for acceptable and bad choices and affluence of synapses to anatomy and breach at any accustomed time.
Let’s meditate on that while abandoning that there are alone 2-to-the-power-of-39 estimated stars in our Milky Way galaxy! Acceptable luck.
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