FreeCell is a card game that I love to play on my laptop, I find that the game does two things well, perhaps three. The first is that it gives me the challenge of problem solving. It is a pattern recognition problem, one that requires the play to recognize the correct patterns and choose the appropriate moves to complete the game. And in a way, it is like chess or checkers in that the player must think several moves ahead. Obviously the two skills go hand in hand. Of course the third benefit is that I get the satisfaction of accomplishment when I win. Under the old Windows versions, one could back up the moves by two or three cards. I am sure that I am not the best player, my winning percentage is 91 percent, meaning that out of ten games on average I will lose one. Regular solitaire, on the other hand, has a very low percentage of winning due to the nature of the game. I haven’t seen anyone do better that 16 to 18 percent, signifying the problem of randomness in the deal. And with FreeCell, there are a few of the ten thousand possible hands dealt that are unsolvable. I think I found one of them last night. I have tried several dozen opening variations and nothing seems to even get close to working. After twelve to eighteen moves I reach a dead end, no most possible moves.
We might call FreeCell and analogy for addiction. That is, there are a great many variations to that behavior. I am not an expert on addiction. I’m not sure that anyone ever is an expert in the true meaning of the word. Addiction is not like Physics or engineering where one can find a suitable set of equations or processes and solve the problem at hand. Yes, we do have scientists who spend their lives studying addiction and can tell us a great deal of the physiological interactions of chemicals and neurotransmitters and how all of that works in tandem to keep the individual chemically dependent on the substance. And we have those Doctors and psychologists who have their lives studying the psychological interactions between drug and addict. But I think most of them far too close to the problem to really see the larger patterns. Like FreeCell or Mahjong, one needs to see the entire board if one is to be successful.
Back in the sixties I read both Freud and Skinner, a rather interesting combination of theories. Freud had the right idea, if you could see how an individual had acquired his current behaviors you could show that person how to understand and change those behaviors. The only problem was that Freud reduced everything down to some repress sexual desire. Now I could never understand how a baby sucking on its mother’s nipple for the breast milk was sexual satiation for the baby. The mother may have felt a sense of sexual satiation, many often do, nothing unusual in that. But that is not the only feelings that both mother and baby sense in that interaction. Yes tochter, sometimes a banana is just a banana. Skinner, on the other hand was far more willing to drill down to specific behaviors and examine how they might be formed. Behaviorism is an interesting study but it always seemed a bit too sterile. And it was too boastful about its success. Give me the reinforcement schedule and I’ll predict the exact behavior. Well, maybe. Pavlov did the ground breaking work on behavior but it takes more that conditioned reflexes and reinforcement schedules to make complex behavior. Later on Skinner was able to take a more philosophical view of behavior and introduce the idea that perhaps nurture and nature interacted in ways that are not always immediately understood. But behavior is learned, just not in one or two ways.
My studies in psychology were eclectic. When I was a young man I eschewed Skinner for the more esoteric clinical side of the house. Gestalt Theory by Perelman was an interesting read. Rogers was far too touchy-feely for my money, perhaps it was an instinctive aversion to the love conquers all theory that he professed. A life of hard knocks told me different and I never trusted the man’s reasoning. Hal Bacharach wrote a beautiful song and Dione sang it very well, but did the world really need love or just a bit of sanity. Later on when I obtained my degrees I delved into cognitive psychology and neuroscience. No clinical claptrap, I was through with that. Besides, I went through a decade and a half with a wife who have mental problems, a hell in itself for the both of us. But neuroscience only explains so much about cognition. It did not tell us why we form biases or habits. So drift over into a bit of biological thinking with genetics, gene expression, and the infamous descended from apes theory, evolution. Evolutionary psychology is another side story and can provide clues to behavior. Many of our common behaviors have evolved over the evolution of mankind. And if you bother to study various animal behaviors you will see a good deal of similarity. That old rule of thumb is an evolutionary thought process that saves time when time is of the essence. If you think you see a lion in the bushes, you climb a tree now instead of waiting to actually see the lion sighting confirmed. You do that because experience has taught you that waiting can be hazardous to your health. Many of our biases are predicated of evolutionary behaviors. In a scientific world where logic and proof reign supreme, the biases are just too irrational. But in the real world they work, on average, very well. The world is not a controlled laboratory, it is a very messy place with more variables than a scientist want to shake a test tube at.
The physiological explanation for addiction only covers the physiological side of the question. The other side is behavioral. Behaviors are formed through choices. The choices are, to a great extend forced by natural or environment influences, and by nurture or biological adaptations. We literally come into this world with almost no knowledge of it. We spend years learning language and semantics. We learn that as babies, if we smile at mom, she smiles back and rubs our tummy or back. No one likes a howling baby but everyone likes one who smiles, coos, and laughs. And we, as babies learn that quite early. We are born with the capacity to hear distinctly 146 or so phonemes, the basic sound units that make up words. English uses about 44 or 46, depending on dialect. Spanish uses only 36 but not all are the same as the ones used in English. Learning is something we humans do very well, although world events says not. But all our lives we constantly learn new information and even new behaviors. Now please understand that behaviors are complex chains of decisions and actions. No one ever says to themselves, “I think I will become addicted to (fill in the blank).” One can try taking heroin several times before becoming “hooked”. It is not so much the drug reaction as it is the habit that is formed. If one is constantly eating and thus gains four or five hundred pounds, the body has the evolutionary need to keep the food stored as fat against hard times, even if those hard times may last several years of little to no nourishment. And the body will not make it easy to shed that weight. But the real problem is why one over eats. Overeating is a choice, a learned behavior. It is habituation and it is almost impossible to extinguish a habit once formed. It gets back to reinforcement schedules. So Skinner wasn’t too far off, was he? But habits can be changed. One can substitute one habit for another fairly successfully. But taking pills just won’t extinguish habits. There are no magic wands to wave, no incantations that work, no amount of positive language or the so called neurolinguistics programming that will change the wiring of your neurons in your brain. One has to analyze the behavioral sets in detail in order to start changing behavior. And that is the hard part. It’s the how and why that matters. Seems Freud wasn’t too far off the mark when he tried to understand why we do what we do. In a sense, one of the keys to understanding the why came from Dr Eric Bern, who was a psychiatrist and wrote the best selling book called, Games People Play. The AMA was not happy with his diagnosis and hounded the man to the point of suicide. But his theory is a classic work, although far too often overlooked in an age of doctors and prescriptions. He showed us a way to look at behavior in a context that made sense. Freud, Skinner, Perelman, Bern, and a few others show us various ways to understand this thing we call addiction. Yet few have ever bothered to put many of these pieces to the puzzle together and thus gain a better insight of the human problem.