Understanding How the Brain Works – the Science Behind Addiction

The brain is a highly complex organ that is responsible for how we live and breathe each day. Not only does it give us the power to eat, breathe, and see, but it is also the reason why we think and feel. 

While the brain may be small, it controls so much in regards to our body and mind. That’s why, when the brain stops working as it normally should, there are such dramatic changes to a person. Are you struggling with addiction? If so, keep reading below as we discover how the brain usually works and how it changes with addictive behavior.

How the brain usually works

Before understanding how the brain works while under the influence of addiction, you need to first understand how it works when it is completely healthy. Below, we’ll discover the main structure of the brain and how it functions on a daily basis.

The structure

First things first – how is the brain structured? The brain structure is highly complex, but  to break it down for you these are the three general areas:


The cortex is the top portion of your brain, often referred to as the outer layer. This portion of the brain is responsible for making maps of our world using our sight and sound senses. The frontal and prefrontal cortexes play similar, but different roles.

Frontal Cortex

The frontal cortex, aptly named because it is at the front of the brain, is tasked with making associations with thought. In other words, it controls emotions, problem solving, memory, language, judgement, and more. It’s kind of like the control panel for our body.

Prefrontal Cortex

The prefrontal cortex sits at the very front of the frontal cortex. It is an aid to the frontal cortex and helps in a variety of behaviors including planning. It can also help with personality and integration of the entire brain. 

Limbic System

The limbic system works with other parts of the brain and the brain stem to create and maintain emotions. It motivates us and drives our behaviors on a daily basis. It also appraises the meaning of things and helps us create attachment to things and people. Within this system, you will find the hippocampus and amygdala, both of which control memory. 

Brain Stem

The brainstem is located at the base of the brain. It connects the brain to the spinal cord and to the rest of the body. It takes information from the body and regulates how you breathe, digest food, and how your major internal organs function. It also has regions that create and regulate the fight/flight/freeze/faint responses whenever we feel threatened.

The function

As mentioned briefly above, the brain and all of the parts within it maintain the function of our entire body. Not only does it control proper bodily functions like regulating body temp, operating our organs, and fighting off infection, but it also creates emotion and memory, maintains our personality, and in short, makes us who we are as an individual. 

In a healthy person, the brain functions normally and does what it needs to keep us at an optimal level. Each organ and each part of the brain does its part to keep the body functioning. However, when the brain is struggling with addiction, there can be some very serious changes.

man contemplating on top of a mountain

A brain struggling with addiction

When a person is struggling with addiction of any kind, the brain struggles with the effects. Whether the substance is physical, like alcohol or drugs, or emotional, like sex and gambling, they all change the brain in the same way. Below, we’ll look at how the structure and function of the brain is affected by addiction:

The structure

In general, the structure of the brain doesn’t change from addiction. All of the separate parts of your brain remain where they are, but there are some tiny changes. Specifically, the visual appearance of the brain changes from a healthy organ to one that is bumpy, rigid, and unhealthy. Much like how the heart grows enlarged and engorged, the brain adjusts negatively in its own way.

The function

The way the brain functions is where most of the changes occur during addiction. To understand how, you must first understand how the brain manages pleasure.

The brain registers pleasure in the same way, regardless of whether it comes from drugs, emotions, sex, or food. To register pleasure, the brain releases dopamine and that is what makes you feel good. 

In a healthy person, you receive the dopamine in your system when these natural situations occur. However, when someone is addicted to drugs, the dopamine goes on high alert. It’s constantly flooding the system, drowning out other parts of the brain that manage control, judgement, etc and causing them to cease working properly. This eventually leads your body to crave and need that drug at higher and higher amounts.

Speak to a professional

As you can see, the brain is a highly complex organ with a lot of high functioning parts. When they are all working optimally, so is the entire body. When you are struggling with addiction, though, the brain suppresses its natural ways to feed the addiction with dopamine. These changes can cause lasting damage to your body and your mind. They can even change your personality!

If you are struggling with addiction and not sure how to stop, we’re here for you. At Coeur d’Alene Counseling, we provide individualized therapy to people struggling with sex addiction and the effects it is having on their entire life. 

Give us a call today, we can help you fight your addiction and return to a healthier lifestyle, for your body and your mind!