SCIENCE: The Chemistry of Addiction - a video by SciShow

Scientists say we are experiencing something of a Golden Age with regards to brain research. The human brain is arguably the most advanced piece of technology in the known universe, and better understanding it is the most exciting step towards better understanding who we are.

The Chemistry of Addiction is a well-presented video brought to us by SciShow – a channel that is quite addictive itself. This particular video about the human brain and brain chemistry offers great insight into why we behave the way we do.

The Chemistry of Addiction

I'm sure the above video is rewarding enough, but I provide a summary below just to reinforce my own understanding of The Chemistry of Addiction. I have also written similar articles such as I drink therefore I am and Web Addiction 2.0 if you're interested in brain chemistry, pharmacology and addiction in general.

The Chemistry of Addiction: A Summary

Learning what chemicals make us feel good (in terms of their affects on the human brain) has essentially lead us to inventing addiction. Eating, sex, gambling, smoking, drinking and even the Internet are all examples of behaviours that can become hugely addictive.

There are over 100 neurotransmitters in our brains that respond to new information by releasing chemicals. These are often in response to how we feel in particular situations. If a particular situation or behaviour is key to our survival (loosely speaking), our brain is likely to reinforce this by releasing 'feel good' chemicals or hormones so that we will repeat certain behaviours in the future.

Getting high on dopamine

Dopamine is the most powerful excitory neurotransmitter that is released whenever our brain believes that we should take strong note of our current behaviour in order to remember it. Eating, sexing and running away from danger are examples of dopamine-releasing situations. However, dopamine is also primarily what drives addiction.

Chasing 'artificial highs' via excessive substance use or excessive pornography viewing for example, may fool our brains into releasing excess amounts of dopamine; however, it will become desensitised over time as it continuously tries to restore balance. The result is that more of a particular substance or behaviour is required in order to feel the same effects recorded to memory from first use.

Why smoking is so addictive

Nicotine has the effect of releasing large amounts of dopamine in our brains. However, in order to leverage this effect, our brains also release a chemical (glutamate) which plays an important role in memory formation. This has the addictive effect of telling our brains to remember that smoking makes us 'feel good' and reinforces the habit.

The effect of alcohol on our brains

Alcohol interferes with the neurotransmitters that allow our bodies and brains to function as one. More alcohol results in slower communication between neurons, which is why we slur, crab-walk and often speak without thinking when we've had too much to drink.

There is a separate SciShow video dedicated to bath salts, which apparently contain an artificial stimulant that combines the effect of both cocaine and meth simultaneously! So think twice before you buy bath salts for your loved one this Christmas!

SciShow - The Chemistry of Addiction

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BOTANY OF DESIRE: The Apple and Potato of Desire

The banana plant can 'walk' up to 40 centimeters in its lifetime. Many herbal plants can warn each other chemically when predatory herbivores are nearby. The sunflower is able to extract radioactivity from water.

Plants really aren’t appreciated enough in our hi-tech world. Many humans like to believe that we somehow exist outside the web of nature rather than living within it. From an evolutionary point of view, plants are just as advanced as humans. Time and time again nature proves that it is stronger than any of our designs as we constantly try to control it.

A friend of mine who has just come back from the United States told me about a fantastic book by bestselling author, Michael Pollan, called The Botany­ of Desire. The book tells the story­ of human desire and is about the domestication of four specific plants from the plants’ perspectives (metaphorically speaking). The apple, tulip, cannabis and the potato have all been integral to the human tale and have influenced history, economics, politics, religion and technology and raised debate over genetically modified food.

The Apple of Desire (as explained in The Botany of Desire)

According to The Botany of Desire, apples have evolved to gratify our desire for sweetness — an innate, hardwired desire that is simply a part of our biology. From an early age we learn that bitter plants are often poisonous while sweet ones are calorie-rich and therefore good for us.

The Botany of Desire Red AppleThe apple first sprouted into existence in Kazakhstan. To migrate to all four corners of the globe and spread its genes, it had to appeal to mammals as a sweet food source. This brought the apple to the New World.

However, what was unknown to the early pioneers is that every apple seed within an apple contains different genetic material and will produce a completely different variety of apple if planted from seed. These tend to be very bitter and New World apples were primarily used to make hard cider, which put rural America into a great binge.

Today there are thousands of apple­ varieties and it is still arguably the universal fruit. It even influenced artists of the Renaissance to imagine the forbidden fruit in the Garden of Eden as being an apple.

The Potato of Desire (as explained in The Botany of Desire)

According to The Botany of Desire, the potato represents our desire to control nature and cultivate a staple food source. It led to the rise of the Incan Empire and helped fuel the Industrial Revolution. It changed the course of European­ history and led to a population­ boom. For civilisations in and around Europe potato crops freed more people from tilling the fields and allowed them to focus their attention on other pursuits.

The Botany of Desire PotatoesThe potato was also a godsend for the Irish who were unable to grow much of anything. This was until a fungus caused the great potato famine in the 19th century — killing over a million people.

The potato has taught us a valuable lesson in biodiversity and illustrates the risk of monocultures. Growing just one species of an edible plant makes entire crops vulnerable to disease and infection. However, the demand today for a certain kind of McDonald's potato chip has resulted in farmers once again growing mostly just one kind of elongated potato.

Attempts to prevent another potato famine has led several farmers to genetically modify their potatoes. Splicing a gene from a bacterium that lives in the soil with the potato leaf kills insects, but has also led to huge consumer uprisings against genetically modified foods.

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BOTANY OF DESIRE: The Tulip, Marijuana and Human Desire

** Read the first part of this article here **

Cannabis (as described in The Botany of Desire)

Marijuana gratifies the human desire to experience an altered state of consciousness. We are all born with an innate drive to experience other mind states periodically, whether this manifests into singing, dancing, experimenting with substances or jumping out of an aeroplane.

The Botany of Desire CannabisAccording to The Botany of Desire, the genius of marijuana is to appeal to this human desire and it has mastered the art of biochemistry. Through it we have discovered a wealth of information regarding how memory, emotion and consciousness all work.

Marijuana’s world domination strategy involved producing more of the chemical (THC) that appeals to the human creature in order to be spread its genes and be given more habitat in which to thrive. Anthropologists posit that the only human culture never to have been influenced by this plant were the Inuit.

Most cultures have historically used cannabis to relieve pain. In Western culture marijuana was the driving force behind the jazz era and set alight the social revolution of the sixties.

The banning of marijuana in the United States led people to splice the genes of Mexican­ and Indian marijuana to produce a short, resilient and fast-growing plant that could be produced indoors. This has resulted in an almost entirely new species of plant, which now largely lives a cushy existence removed entirely from nature and the foothills of Mongolia and China where it originated.

The Tulip (as described in The Botany of Desire)

According to The Botany of Desire, the tulip (like many flowers) has evolved to gratify our desire for a certain kind of beauty. Flowers have been flaunting their beauty for more than 100 million years since the rise of the angiosperms. These plants form fruit and seed and have male and female types, which allows for the mixing of genes. This creates greater variety, which means greater adaptability and ability to survive.

The Botany of Desire Sempter AugustusWhen the tulip caught our attention and began to be cultivated, this plant underwent some startling changes. Its new forms bewitched the sultan of the Ottoman Empire and engulfed the Dutch in “tulip mania” during the 17th century. The tulip fast became one of the most valuable commodities in the world and spurred one of the biggest investment bubbles in human history.

The tulip came to denote wealth and status and it became fashionable for the prosperous to grow flower gardens. One tulip variety, the Semper Augustus, fetched as much as R70 000 in today’s money. Soon there was more money outstanding on tulip bulbs than there was in circulation, which caused economic collapse.

It was later discovered that the most sought-after tulip varieties were actually infected by a plant virus. Today, more than 19 million tulips leave Holland for flower shops around the world.

In a nutshell, plants are pretty amazing. The central lesson we can take from these four species is that we need to stop trying to control nature­ and rather learn to work with it.

  • Video footage, interviews with Michael Pollan and more about The Botany of Desire can be explored online at

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