Can Drugs Hijack Your Brain?

With legal cannabis across Canada and drugs like fentanyl and heroin decriminalized in British Columbia, the question remains: can drugs hijack your brain?

It’s an all-too-common belief among so-called “experts” and the general public. The general idea is that drugs (or food, gambling, porn, etc.) can “hijack” the brain’s dopamine pathways and essentially compel you to behave a certain way.

Dopamine is a neurotransmitter that plays a crucial role in the brain’s reward system. The brain releases it in response to pleasurable and painful stimuli.

Drugs like cocaine, for example, cause excessive dopamine release in the brain. This can lead to feelings of intense pleasure and euphoria. Over time, the repeated use of these drugs can lead to changes in the brain’s dopamine pathways, causing them to become “hijacked.”

The “experts” say the same thing can occur with cannabis, although not as severe (or as rapid) as the way it happens with cocaine.

But what if this viewpoint is bunk? What if referring to “dopamine” as the “everything chemical” and promoting “dopamine fasting” is just the moral values of Science™ masquerading as fact?

Can Drugs Hijack Your Brain? Five Major Criticisms 

Can Drugs Hijack Your Brain? Five Major Criticisms

Can drugs hijack your brain? There are five significant criticisms of this viewpoint.

  1. Over-simplification. Some experts argue that the hijacking of the dopamine pathways is too simple to explain the complex phenomenon of dependency. They point out that drug dependency involves multiple brain regions and systems, not just the dopamine pathways.
  2. Lack of evidence. Critics argue that there is limited direct evidence to support the hijacking hypothesis and that the theorists base their information on indirect and circumstantial evidence.
  3. Dopamine is not the only factor. The hijacking hypothesis focuses solely on dopamine and its role in the brain’s reward system. But many critics argue that other factors, such as genetics, environment, and individual choice, also play a role.
  4. Individual variability. Critics argue that the hijacking hypothesis does not account for individual variability in how different people respond to drugs. For example, some people may be more susceptible to opioid dependency than others, even when exposed to the same drug.
  5. Medications. Critics argue that the hijacking hypothesis does not fully explain why some medications, such as buprenorphine, can effectively treat addiction by stabilizing the dopamine pathways, while other drugs, such as cocaine, lead to hijacking.

Neuroscience has become all the rage, particularly among people looking to optimize (or to eliminate, change or modify) certain behaviours. But neuroscience relies on correlational evidence to establish a connection between brain activity and behaviour or mental processes.

However, correlation does not imply causation. Associations between variables can’t and won’t prove causality.

Reducing the mind to mere brain activity oversimplifies the complex nature of conscious experience. Current neuroscience methods are not equipped to capture the holistic nature of the mind. 

Neuroscience relies heavily on imaging techniques such as fMRI to study the brain. However, these methods have limitations, such as poor temporal resolution.

But ultimately, the problem is that neuroscience can’t determine the precise nature of the relationship between brain activity and mental processes. 

Neuroscience can’t objectively study the mind.

So with this in mind, is there any evidence to support the belief that drugs can hijack the mind?

Is Dopamine Too Simple of an Explanation?

Is Dopamine Too Simple of an Explanation?

The hijacking of dopamine pathways is too simple an explanation for the complex phenomenon of consciousness and a desire to use drugs. Consider what drug dependency involves.

  1. Involvement of multiple brain regions. Drug dependency is a complex process that involves many brain regions, not just the dopamine pathways. For example, other brain regions that play a role in dependency include the prefrontal cortex, the amygdala, and the hippocampus. These regions regulate emotions, motivation, decision-making, and learning, all of which can be affected by growing dependent on specific drugs or activities.
  2. Neuroplasticity. Drug dependency is a process that leads to changes in the brain over time. These changes, known as neuroplasticity, occur in multiple brain regions and can lead to the development of new neural pathways that support drug seeking and use. But this happens whenever you learn a new habit. No one feels compelled to drive a car, but most of us can do it in our sleep thanks to neuroplasticity.
  3. Psychological and environmental factors. Drug dependency is not just a matter of brain chemistry. It also involves psychological and environmental factors, such as stress, trauma, and cost of living, which can contribute to its development and maintenance. For example, notorious alcoholic poet Charles Bukowski drank significantly less later in life as he came across money and success.
  4. Interactions with other systems. Drug dependency also involves interactions with other systems in the body, such as the stress response system and the immune system.
  5. Individual variability. Drug dependency is a complex and highly personal phenomenon that various factors, such as genetics, personality, and environment, can influence. 

Five Reasons “Dopamine Hijacking” is a Theory

  1. Lack of direct measurements. There is a lack of direct measurements of dopamine levels in the brain during drug use, making it difficult to establish the role of dopamine in dependency.
  2. Indirect measurements. The evidence for the hijacking hypothesis is primarily based on indirect measures of dopamine, such as PET scans and functional MRI. These provide only a snapshot of the brain. They do not reflect the complex and dynamic changes that occur in the brain over time. Some critics argue that brain scans amount to reading tea leaves.
  3. Circumstantial evidence. Critics argue that much of the proof of the hijacking hypothesis is circumstantial and based on correlations between drug use and dopamine release. To date, there have been no direct cause-and-effect relationships established.
  4. Model limitations: Researchers base the hijacking hypothesis on animal studies, which have limitations in generalizing to humans. For example, the methods used to study drug dependency in animals, such as self-administration models, may not accurately reflect the complexity and heterogeneity of human beings. Not to mention, unlike animals, we don’t always rely on instinct. We can think and reason.
  5. Complexity of the brain. Critics argue that the brain is a complex system and that the hijacking hypothesis oversimplifies the many factors and processes.

Five More Reasons “Dopamine Hijacking” is a Theory

  1. Individual differences. Individual differences, such as personality, coping skills, and motivations for drug use, can also play a role in the development of drug dependency.
  2. Interactions with other systems. Critics argue that the hijacking hypothesis focuses solely on dopamine and the brain’s reward system. It neglects other methods, such as the stress system, that can also play a role in drug dependency.
  3. Differences in sensitivity to drugs. Some individuals may be more sensitive to the rewarding effects of drugs, making them more susceptible to dependency. The hijacking hypothesis does not account for why some people love cannabis while others hate it. Or why some people can enjoy cocaine at a party but not touch it again for weeks.
  4. Different drug-taking patterns. Different individuals may have different patterns of drug use, such as frequency and dose, that can contribute to developing dependency. The hijacking hypothesis does not account for the role of these differences in drug-taking patterns.
  5. Different mechanisms of action. Some experts argue that the hijacking hypothesis does not fully explain why some medications, such as buprenorphine, can stabilize the dopamine pathways while other drugs, such as cocaine, lead to hijacking. Different mechanisms of action, such as how drugs bind to brain receptors, may play a role in this discrepancy. Differences in the effects of drugs on multiple brain systems, beyond just the dopamine pathways, may also play a role.

Can Drugs Hijack Your Brain?

Can Drugs Hijack Your Brain?

Can drugs hijack your brain by hijacking your dopamine? If that belief helps you get through life, don’t let me stop you.

The idea drugs or specific activities can “hijack” your brain and make you addicted is a theory based on indirect and circumstantial evidence.

Drug dependency is a complex phenomenon that the hijacking hypothesis cannot fully explain.

There are plenty of reasons to criticize British Columbia’s drug decriminalization. Especially when the “experts” believe all that’s stopping people from seeking help is the “stigma” associated with the illegality of drugs.

But suppose you oppose decriminalization or legalization based on the hypothesis that drugs can “hijack” your brain. 

In that case, you might as well oppose gay marriage based on words written in a religious text. Meaning, you can oppose drugs on a moral or ethical basis. But you lose all credibility once you decide what’s best for others. Especially when your justification is the Science™.

Using drugs, whether it’s a dab of cannabis shatter, a bottle of beer, a hit of LSD, or a line of cocaine, involves the release of numerous neurochemicals and hormones in the body. This leads to a complex interplay of effects.

By attributing drug dependency solely to dopamine, we encourage individuals to externalize the problem and blame it on a neurotransmitter. But it is more productive to focus on the cognitive and behavioral aspects of drug dependency.

If the “experts” want to help, they should call to attention the individual’s actions, motivations, and the cultural or societal significance they attribute to their drug-taking behaviour. They should focus on changing people’s beliefs about drugs rather than fixating on these irrelevant neurochemicals.