“I don’t care how long you’ve been clean and sober. Drug addicts and alcoholics should not have handguns in the house.” That advice was given to a roomful of clean and sober addicts and alcoholics, me among them, twentysomething years ago. The advice-giver went on to say that addicts and alcoholics are by nature over-sensitive and over-reactive, and can’t trust ourselves not to make a lethal snap judgment.
All these years later, science has proven her right. The recent, much-publicized sibling study at Cambridge University demonstrated an inherited defect in the decision-making brain tissue of addict families. It doesn’t matter whether or not the sibling is actually using drugs (although I would love to get a look at the “normal” sibling’s eating, smoking and gambling habits!) — some people are hard-wired for impulsivity.
We already knew that anecdotally, of course, but it’s always nice to see it in a controlled double-blind research paper. And as long as we’re applying it to handgun ownership, I don’t mind one way or the other, since I never felt the need to own a handgun.
But if we extend the science — and we should, although even I don’t like where this is heading — sex and love addicts really shouldn’t be cruising online, either, whether in recovery or in active addiction. Internet dating is not a good idea for any addict or alcoholic, really. Here’s why:
Those of us with the genetic predisposition for addiction not only have quirky deciding brain cells, we also have quirky rewarding brain cells. When these reward cells — the dopamine receptors — work poorly, you have trouble feeling pleasure. So, impulsively and without much thought to the consequences thanks to Quirk A, addicts-in-training do things to increase our dopamine production. Fast cars, maybe, or sky-diving. Usually, it’s your basic sex, drugs and rock’n’roll. Works great to increase dopamine production. Sadly, all that nice positive feedback sets us up for some pretty negative habits.
What has this got to do with online dating? Novelty and anticipation stimulate dopamine production. A lot. Think about the gambler at the slot machine, compulsively pulling the handle because the expectation of a jackpot is so enthralling. Or the rat in a Skinner box, tapping the lever in expectation of food. How different is that from you clicking your way through QuickMatch on OK Cupid?
"Next! Next! Next!” This the happy cry of a brain feeding on hits of dopamine. Which is fine, as long as you keep feeding it. A neurochemical surge is invariably followed by a neurochemical withdrawal, followed by a craving, followed by another hit, followed by… yeah, you’re way ahead of me. Be honest: How many years do you want to speed date?
Don’t shoot me; I’m only the messenger. You aren’t even supposed to have a handgun in the house, remember?