Science and Emotion and Drug Addiction Exposed: A Review of Memoirs of an Addicted Brain: A Neuroscientist Examines His Former Life on Drugs by Dr. Marc Lewis

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Dr. Marc Lewis’ book, Memoirs of an Addicted Brain: A Neuroscientist Examines His Former Life on Drugs, has only been out a few weeks and already the reviews are rolling in praising the work as a both a literary and a scientific achievement:

Ian Brown of the Globe and Mail calls it a “…picture of addiction as an unavoidable urge of human nature.” Dr. Gaber Maté, author of In the Realm of Hungry Ghosts: Close Encounters with Addiction, notes the book is “…illuminating to experts, accessible to all.” And Dr. Evan Thompson, professor of philosophy at the University of Toronto, claims that “Great writers create new genres, and that’s exactly what Lewis has done.”

Lay audiences and recovering addicts alike agree. Lewis, now a developmental neuroscientist, has presented an autobiographical odyssey that first off, details the “what” and expresses the “how” of the life of an addict who started with booze as a kid and made his way through LSD and opium and heroin. Two, explains the “why” of the addicted brain on alcohol, on psychedelics and psychotropics, and on opiates.

Memoirs of an Addicted Brain is written in four parts with fifteen chapters that tail the major movements and many milestone moments that created the addict:

Part I, The Tabor Chronicles, includes a fifteen-year-old Lewis’ adventures and misadventures (which are not all that aberrant) at a private para-naval academy for boys in New England, hundreds of miles from his home turf in Toronto, Canada. The section outlines the human influences (rich and righteous adolescent bullies, a concerned mother, a proud father, and so on.) and details the personal experiences and emotions (including Lewis’s being “gutted” by depression) that the author implicitly explains contributed in some way to his developing an addiction that lasted most of his life to date.

Part II, Life and Death in California, follows the author’s studies at UC Berkeley and his experiences in the city that in 1968, the year Lewis arrived in San Francisco/Berkeley, were part of the larger movement to make love, drop out, and drop acid—which Lewis did with a frequency and a frenzy that rivaled only his drug-seeking and drug-getting behavior: he played with LSD and mescaline, but tousled with heroin, explaining in his memoirs that by then it had gone beyond depression as a reason for doing drugs and had become a part of his brain’s neurochemical make-up that drove this otherwise hard-working psychology major to want, then, need, then be neurochemically programmed to crave chemicals so badly the solution would become (as he would illustrate in Part IV) to steal them to feed the “cycle of craving” of the addicted brain.

In Part III, Going Places, the opiate family continues to plague the craven, with the great grand-daddy of the family, opium. The first time he had felt the effects of alcohol, as he explains in Part I, he had finally “felt cheerful.”  The first time he had done heroin, Lewis describes in Part II, he had felt the unique feeling that many addicts in recovery now describe as that which is better than sex (as that, which one addict once told me, if God made anything better than He had kept for Himself): as bringing about “a nexus of bodily comfort and emotional well-being. A warm syrup…,” whereby, “There is no sleepiness, no drowsiness…,” a place whereby, “Outside of [him] nothing exist[ed].”  And with opium, as he experienced it throughout his travels with medical teams in Malaysia, Calcutta, and elsewhere throughout Asia, the pleasure as an escape from pain (his depression), it was relief and it was reward that, he narrates, kept him returning for more.

And as he does in most of the chapters of the book, Lewis moves beyond the addict-in-him experiences to the addicted person’s feelings to the addicted brain’s needs. With the opiates, or opioids, for instance, Dr. Lewis differentiates between the natural opioids of the human brain and the synthetic opioids that reproduce the sought-after highs, the highs that are pursued with such tendentiousness, he says, one is “willing to do anything” to get them.

As he writes, natural opioids of the brain’s hypothalamus function in three ways, “to provide relief from pain or stress, to produce a sense of pleasure or well-being that can energize any goal, and to use either or both of these feelings-relief and/or reward-as the emotional currency of human attachment.” What happened for him, and what happens, at the brain level, with opium, then, is a provision of two kinds of feelings, or two ways opium (and opioids) could exorcise his demons of depression and loneliness: by “inhibiting the firing of neurons [found everywhere in the brain, the spinal cord, brain stem, insula, amygdala, etc.] that are activated by pain or stress;” and by “trigger[ing] opioids in the ventral striatum…trigger[ing] dopamine release, enhancing the appeal of whatever’s showing up on the screen of perception….”

As his misadventures by Part IV of the book, In Sickness and in Health, illustrate, such as getting work as a graduate student in a mental institution where in the labs he steals the chemicals/drugs, the feel-good/rewarded/pain relieved feelings neuroscientifically justify the Lewis who went from liking his highs to wanting and even needing these highs to continue and repeat. As he explains in the memoirs, “Natural goodies like food and sex certainly follow the progression from liking to wanting. Feels good—want more. But with goodies both natural and acquired, it is dopamine’s flame of desire, unleashed by the ahhhhh of opioids, that causes animals to repeat behaviours that lead to satisfaction.

The components responsible, the opioid receptors, are so potent in assigning to the human the propensity for drug addiction because, Lewis explains, they are found in a multitude of places, addressing, like his many personal malaises, multileveled forms of suffering with manifold aspects that are psychologically susceptible to opioid relief.

As Dr. Lewis writes in his intro, drugs can teach us a lot about the brain, and what we know about the brain can teach us a lot about addiction.” And as the Psychology Department, University of Oregon’s Professor Don Tucker acclaims, what Dr. Lewis’ book does is “teach…us how normal yearning can be short-circuited by addiction.” Thus, in many ways does Memoirs of an Addicted Brain function as a human-interest chronicling of drug-addicted behavior, as a neuroscientific and biophysical as well as biopsychological guidebook, as an all around good, informative read.

Memoirs of an Addicted Brain: A Neuroscientist Examines his Former Life on Drugs. By Marc Lewis, Ph.D,  320 pp. Doubleday Canada, $21.75
Available at
Amazon, among other retailers.

Science and Emotion and Drug Addiction Exposed: A Review of Memoirs of an Addicted Brain: A Neuroscientist Examines His Former Life on Drugs by Dr. Marc Lewis