Recently, I've been learning more about the brain's reward system pathway. I don't want to go too deeply into it because, frankly, even people who know a little about it get frustrated and irritated when I go deep into the details. It's pretty dense stuff, and only those who want to know the science very well need to know about it. So, I'm going to speak in general terms, and entertain questions about details should my readers want more concrete answers.
What I've learned recently enhances what I talked about in the previous several posts, and it has mainly applied to substance use and abuse. In particular, I've learned a thing or two about how drugs that affect the parts of your brain that experience pleasure mess up your ability to take joy in anything else. The woman who was teaching the class I was sitting in on told us a story which, after hearing it, ran a bell very strongly with my experience with food.
This woman has a PhD, is a registered nurse, and a practicing licensed therapist as well as a teacher at a private graduate school. One can conclude she has a lot of practical as well as book-oriented knowledge. She told us about a client that she had who had spent several years using cocaine. Prior to his cocaine use, he used to enjoy music greatly. After using cocaine, music no longer could offer him the same joy, not even long after he'd stopped using the drug.
What had happened to this man was that the parts of his brain that were stimulated by the drug were the same ones that allowed him to take pleasure in other things. By abusing the drug to hyper-stimulate those areas, he changed the way they experienced the world forever. That's right. Forever. They were permanently changed such that nothing would ever give him pleasure in the same way again.
The reason this story really hit home with me was that, when I started changing my relationship with food, I wrote about how my life was changing. In this post (12th paragraph), "I should note that there is very much
an aspect of this which is “duller” than things used to be. That
is, the lights were more brilliant and the colors were brighter when
food was fully centralized". This was a reflection of the fact that food was the thing that lit up the pleasure centers in my brain in a way nothing else could.
A lifetime of using food for comfort has almost certainly altered my brain's reward pathways just as those in the cocaine addict were altered. The highs were rarely as high for me as they were when I was fully invested in partaking in food with not restriction. However, I do believe that there is a difference between what happened to me and what happened to the cocaine addict. He was damaged and can't be repaired. I am damaged and am in the process of being repaired.
It continues to be a long and complex path. Due to the psychological processing I've done, I can never regard food as the end all and be all of pleasure. The "buzz" I got from it died and I can't honestly say that anything has replaced it in intensity. I can say that things have slowly gotten better as I've tried to replace that pleasure with other types of pleasure, but it's more about collecting little bits of thing to enjoy then one whopper that delivered it's payload of joy in one sitting.
I don't know about the biology for certain, but I'd be shocked if people like me didn't see their reward pathways light up like a Christmas tree from food and provide dim lighting from other sources of pleasure. I think that this could be part of the complex picture of why people who lose weight regain. Just as the cocaine addict goes back to the drug because life becomes dim and joyless without it, the addicted eater may similarly find that the lights need some brightening when they try to abandon their drug of choice.
I know that it has taken me years to decouple destructive pleasure seeking in food and it's still there to some extent (as my last few posts illustrate) and similarly has taken years to elevate other pleasures to a meaningful status in terms of my response. I'm not saying every fat person does this, but I do think that for those of us who became fat as children and continue to be fat as adults, there's a good chance that our brains are built around this way of deriving pleasure from our world.