Recovering from Addiction

Wanting and Liking

When it comes to recovering from food addiction there’s a significant difference between “wanting” and “liking” something but too often these concepts are used interchangeably. To be clear, there are separate “wanting” and liking neural pathways in the brain. So why is this important for us to understand? For the purpose of this chapter “wanting” is defined as desire (mesolimbic incentive salience). The “wanting” pathways in our brain are driven by the powerful mesolimbic dopamine system which motivates us to obtain and consume what we “want” even when we know it may be an unhealthy choice. Cues and situations become able to trigger urges that motivate us to obtain and consume our “wants”. The intensity of the triggered urge or desire depends on the cues reward association and the state of our dopamine-related brain systems.


Recovering from Addiction: Wanting

When we see (or smell) french fries most of us experience a sudden urge to eat them – especially when they’re on someone else’s plate. Why? Because if you’re anything like me…they’re experiencing pleasure that’s rightfully mine! We reach across the table because we feel like we’re missing out. Or are we? Let’s separate “want/desire” from like. To retrain our brain to pay attention to “like” we have to explore our “wants” with some consistent, conscientious effort. In short, “likes” have to become more important to us than “wants”.

Recovering from Addiction: Liking

So most of us “like” fitting into our clothes. We would recoil at the thought of drinking vegetable oil and probably refuse to eat a raw potato. If I think about what fries actually are, my “want” diminishes rapidly. If I take the time to separate unconscious stimulus-driven “want” from what I like…I can leave the fries alone. The same thing is true of cocaine and alcohol addiction. Most of us would quickly turn away from the smell of high-powered solvents but this smell is a motivational cue that triggers the desire to use for the person who has enjoyed the stimulant reward of cocaine. Similarly, we learn to “want” alcohol based on what it does in our brain (and train ourselves to tolerate the taste).

How Wanting Motivates Relapse

For anyone suffering from an addiction, no matter what the substance of choice, state-dependent changes in dopamine will amplify the desire to consume. So for us that means that stress, depression, and other changes in brain activity will motivate us toward relapse. If we see or are presented with the opportunity to consume (or use) it’s less likely we’ll abstain. For some people, situations are as triggering as actual substances. Places (like sports bars) become associated with the satisfaction of “wants”. That’s why in early recovery it may be best to avoid the places and situations where we used to consume or use.

Addiction Hotspots

The “liking” system is anatomically a much smaller system of interactive hedonic (feel-good) hotspots. These hotspots (less than a cubic centimeter) are nested within structures in the brain. They exist in the prefrontal cortex, orbitofrontal and insula regions – parts of the brain that code sensory pleasures. It stands to reason that our feelings of intense pleasure may be less frequent and shorter in duration simply because this system is smaller. So advertising efforts aside, it’s not realistic for us to think that we can sustain intense feelings of pleasure. The important thing to remember is that dopamine neural activity affects our desire but not our experience of pleasure.

Now, Let’s BreakThrough!

  1. Can you recall a recent incident when “wanting” overrode your best intentions?
  2. What can you do to rethink “wants”?
  3. Are there places you may need to avoid for a while?
  4. Identify your healthy “likes”
      We hope you have enjoyed this article from The BreakThrough! Program.

References & Related Topics

[Berridge, K. C., & Robinson, T. E. (2016). Liking, wanting, and the incentive-sensitization theory of addiction. American Psychologist, 71(8), 670-679. doi:10.1037/amp0000059

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