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In the remarkable paper Transforming Behaviour Change there are many parallels to recovery from, for the purposes of my blog, addictions. The author, Jonathan Rowson opens with a request for a deeper discussion about the increasingly important relationship between neuroscience, behaviour and society. Possible fears about governmental use of new techniques to control society, with science and pharmacological are set aside early on, although I would state my belief that a vast proportion of Western society is legally medicated, anesthetised with alcohol, nicotine, antidepressants, caffeine  and other drugs on a daily basis.

If addictions are the long, dark tunnel of isolation and oblivion, then recovery is stepping into the light of transformative behavioural change via social interaction, and by exploring the concepts of the (RSA) Social Brain project. In my view, addictions can be seen as fault attachment being acted out using mind and mood altering substances to self-sooth emotional problems. For many, the substance such as alcohol or other drugs is used to medicate or anesthetise the unbearable feelings of loss and becomes a surrogate soother replacing the human contact. The consumption of many of these toxic chemicals can eventually create a neurological problem and physical dependency - addiction.

The social brain can problematize this process as we copy what we see others doing in our social setting whether at home or our community. If using alcohol is the norm at home we will almost certainly continue that behaviour or feel ambivalent to the inherent dangers. If our social group smoke or use cannabis or other drugs, surely the same can happen?

This is perhaps a little over simplistic, but so much happens out of our conscious awareness. The ideas proposed in the report are that we can grow and evolve a greater awareness. However, it can be all too easy to sit back and say we have no control because we act in the context of the effects others have on us and us on them. In a way this may be true to some degree in the context of addictions where compulsive behaviour can form over time and can become very hard to stop even in the face or increasingly problematic consequences. From a Social Brain perspective, by offering salient information to people who want to stop destructive behaviours and want to change themselves on their terms, will create the possibility of new health behaviours and lifestyles. 

Recovery starts first with stopping self-medication. To us a metaphor of a shaken fish tank, when the shaking the sediment settles. The water clears and vision, the ability to see clearly is restored. This can be the emergence of a key part of the Social Brain theory reflexivity which is not a term in daily use but describes self-awareness in action.

Recovery is both an outward and inward looking process. The outer process is to start to see what other do to get through life more smoothly. Addiction is often seen by society as anti-social behaviour from the perspective of the socially constructed set of norms of pro-social behaviour. Those who are addicted to substances generally get bad press, though these tend be the financially disadvantaged, or wayward high profile people. Extremely negative slang and derogatory language exists for those who we see out of control, from the use of whatever substance we make sense of via the situation we see the person in. The person we look upon inevitably feels worthless without our gaze. However difficult it may be to make the  connection from a degrading “it”, to a human being doing the best they can in that moment, the life before us has engaged, as the paper suggests we all do, with mirroring the social system we are part of.

A growing body of evidence shows that we have mirror neurons which explain empathy and our automatic response to the actions and experiences of others as though they were our own.  Someone with an addiction to a particular substance will tend to mix within that group, to normalise their behaviour and to be able to deny a problem; ‘they all do it, so what’s wrong with me doing it?’

In recovery, this process can be turned around into something very positive. As the report says “the contagious effects of the experience and actions of others align us with the group, and primary group, rather than selfish interests.” For me, this is what Recovery Champions are about; carrying a physically evidenced efficacy of the recovery experience that can create contagious recovery within groups and communities. Engaging in a reflexive lifestyle people can become aware, through the engagement with others who have been there before them, with the general principles that underlie their behaviour. Pro-social behaviour can emerge demanding a shift in the way we know ourselves and others.

This new found self-knowledge includes a growing emotional literacy, having a positive relationship with feelings. Alcohol and other drugs are often used to supress, or as an antidote to a whole range of feelings; sad, bad, alone, angry, happy, etcetera. Recovery requires a changed perspective about this emotional world that all humans have, and an understanding that drug use just deadens the constant flow of feelings, that they will pass, won’t kill us or destroy our lives where drug use might.

The process of recovery and living with others we are socially engaged with requires mindfulness. The social brain paper talks about mediation and mindfulness as necessary to remain in a change process. We live with a varied amount of lives out of awareness, and in a state of perpetual anxiety and denial. Freud might talk about death anxiety, perhaps. How often do we go to a restaurant and wonder whether the staff serving us have washed their hands after using the toilet, before resuming working with food? Not often, I would suggest, but this and many other unconscious fears prevail every moment of every day. It would be too much to bear for anyone, so we either suppress the feelings or we can suffer from cognitive dissonance, which may become stressful, uncomfortable to be with. In recovery these feelings need to be brought into awareness. Mindfulness can assist this, a reflexive practice of what the day held, who, what, where, when, and feeling attached to this contact. It is not a place of judgement, just to look, see, feel, let go, and remain present.

The Social Brain paper may not have been designed or focussed on recovery or addiction, but it overlaps just as so many of the RSA projects do, with all walks of life. Addiction, just as the common cold, is a very human response to something we cannot always see, the social brain project, and its next steps can assist in engaging all with a life transforming process. I encourage you all to read its’ offerings.


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