Addiction (with Judy Grisel, Ph.D.)

Today we’re diving into the world of addiction and drug use with Judy Grisel, a behavioral neuroscientist who’s been down the road of addiction herself. We’ll cover why humans are so drawn to altering our consciousness with chemicals, how addictive drugs affect our brains, and some common misconceptions about drug use. Plus, we’ll explore the factors that contribute to addiction, like age, genetics, and even random chance.

Judy Grisel’s book is “Never Enough: The Neuroscience and Experience of Addiction.” Pick it up here.

Video version:

Citations and further reading:

Theme music by Danny Lopatka of DLC Music. Episode music from Epidemic Sound (affiliate link).


Ashley: Hi, Taboo Science listeners. Welcome to season three. Just wanted to greet you up top and say how much I’ve missed making this show. And how overjoyed I am to be back. If you don’t follow me on Twitter or subscribe to the newsletter — you should, by the way — I took time away from the show to have a baby.

Ashley: While Taboo Science was on hiatus, I learned a lot more, I changed up some things and generally got a lot more confidence in my ability to make this show a favorite of many more people. So I hope you like what you hear.

Also content note. This episode deals with drug use and addiction obviously, and could be a little raw for loved ones of those who are struggling with addiction or those who are struggling themselves. Okay on with the show.


I’ll tell you a story that’ll probably sound familiar. Our main character works in agriculture. She’s a hard worker, regularly pulling 12 hour days. I’d say she’s due for a promotion, but her coworkers all work the same grueling schedule. One day at lunch, she has a little drink. Maybe it was a miscalculation, maybe it was the stress of her job, but that drink ended up being a lot stronger than she thought.

And she liked the way it made her feel. So she did it again. And again. She kept drinking on the job until her coworkers started to notice. She wasn’t bringing in as much product as she used to. And she was acting funny.

She’d get aggressive over minor things. And one day she even got lost in the fields and had to have help getting home.

So she lost her job. And with it, her livelihood. She became homeless and eventually died, alone and destitute.

You’ve probably heard stories like this one. They’re pretty common. But the twist. Our main character is a honeybee. Seriously. Honeybees we’ll find fermented nectar and get completely blitzed on it sometimes to the point of developing a sort of alcohol dependence. But these run a tight ship and a drunken weaving waggle dance will get you kicked out. And often killed.

I tell you this story to show that a drive to drink — or smoke or snort or inject, or any of the many ways humans alter their minds with chemicals — it’s deep in our biology. All sorts of animals partake in recreational drug use when given the chance. We’ve just concentrated those drugs into more powerful forms and that causes problems.

But not for everybody. And not in the ways you expect.

I’m Ashley Hamer. And this is Taboo Science. The podcast that answers the questions you’re not allowed to ask.

It’s Built Into Us

When I say all sorts of animals do drugs, I mean all sorts. Cats get high on catnip. Cows will seek out a tranquilizing plant called locoweed. Deer and sheep will go to great lengths to find and consume psychedelic mushrooms and tons of insects, birds and mammals will seek out fermented fruits to get drunk.

Maybe my favorite example of drug use in the animal kingdom is dolphins. They’re known to bite down softly on pufferfish, which as any sushi aficionado knows contains a potent neurotoxin. The dolphins essentially perform a puff puff pass with the fish, carefully squeezing it and then passing it to the next dolphin. They act high too. They’ve been seen shortly afterward floating right beneath the water’s surface, just staring at their own reflections.

If animals do it, then it makes sense that a drive to do drugs is not something you get from a bad peer group or demonic possession. It’s programmed into us.

Judy Grisel: The tendency to take chemicals, so plant products, originally, that change the way we feel and think and behave is older than humans. This is like a built in drive, kind of like the drive for sex or food.

That’s Judy Grisel. She’s a behavioral neuroscientist and author of the book, Never Enough: The Neuroscience and Experience of Addiction.

Judy Grisel: Something about exploring the edges of our consciousness is part and parcel of what it means to be human, and probably is responsible for lots of good things, you know. Things that we accomplish as a society and as individuals.

Judy’s Story

Judy isn’t your average neuroscientist. She comes at this topic with firsthand experience.

Judy Grisel: I started using when I was almost 13. Just about 13, I kind of on a whim, drank a big amount of wine and loved it.

I don’t think the wine was very good, but the feeling sure was, and the alcohol sure was. So that was enough to kind of tip me from being a fairly typical kid to being completely reckless and outta control. And I spent 10 years using as many things as I could get my hands on.

Ashley: That caused a lot of problems in her life. She was kicked out of three schools. She ended up homeless. She contracted Hepatitis C from sharing dirty needles. Finally her father, who she hadn’t spoken to in years, came out of the woodwork to take her to a treatment center halfway across the country.

Judy Grisel: Which I thought was gonna be kind of like a spa.

And it was not. It was more like prison than a spa for sure. To me it seemed that way and I, I felt kind of duped. Not that I had any clear idea of what I was doing or where I was going, but I, I wasn’t really intending to not use drugs. I was just intending to kind of get a little cleaned up. So when the people who worked there who were also mostly in recovery themselves, said with urgency that if I wanted to live, I had to be abstinent, I thought, no way. That is not for me.

Ashley: Judy figured, well, if addiction is a disease diseases can be cured. So I’ll just cure my disease. Then I can just go back to using drugs without that pesky addiction.

Problem solved.

Judy Grisel: And I, in my delusions, thought that that was gonna take me seven years and I was gonna do everything I was told for seven years. So I was gonna take their advice and meanwhile solve my problem so that I could use. I just turned 23 at that time, and I had no promising attributes really.

But I was determined. That’s one good thing about people like me. And uh, yeah, so that’s how I ended up with a PhD in neuroscience.

Ashley: Yeah. She went from addict to neuroscientist. It might sound like those two things have nothing in common, but Judy doesn’t think so.

Judy Grisel: I know this probably sounds weird, but in a way, experimentation and doing science was similar to trying to score something on the street. You know, it was full of uncertainty, pretty exciting sometimes, a lot of times just downright tedious and miserable. So I guess I was well suited for a scientific career, but I had no intention of — you know, here I am almost 37 years sober and that’s where I spend my life in academia. I didn’t really think that far ahead. I just figured, you know, I’d get this squared away and then, uh, not self-destruct.

The Silver Lining of Addiction

Ashley: That’s why Judy might be uniquely qualified to see the silver lining in addiction. Because, like she said, exploring the edges of our consciousness is part of what makes us human.

Judy Grisel: I think that we are made to kind of want to go to the edge of our understanding and the edge of our own experience and the edge of what’s possible. I mean, look at how they just finally got nuclear fusion done and uh, good findings about black holes in the news today.

And we build these crazy things and fly stuff to the moon. I mean, I shouldn’t just talk about physics. But I think art and music. I mean, it’s so creative. And so I think this ability to create and to make things that do not exist is connected to our drive to go to the edge of what exists. And one way that we can do that is through chemicals, but other ways are through creative acts like writing poems or learning the guitar or climbing mountains or exploring the sea floor or being in a experimental neuroscience lab or falling in love or having a child.

These things all kind of break us open to what we think we know to a place where, you know, oh, that’s new. And I think, I think that’s really wonderful. So what drugs do is they make us feel like things are new and exciting and at the edge at first, and then because the brain adapts, it gets tedious.

Ashley: More on that adaptation in a moment.

Drugs in the Brain

Ashley: Like a cancer researcher who’s had cancer, Judy is a scientist who knows her topic intimately. And as she was saying, the drive to use chemicals that make us feel good, comes built into our programming.

Judy Grisel: So the tendency is normal. What’s different these days is the amount of access we have to so many different chemicals. And what happens is if you think about, say, food or sex, and it’s kind of a similar drive, you know, we get full. And we mostly satiate to sex, at least, you know, for a while. But that isn’t the case with a lot of these chemicals. So what happens is we take them, they feel good, we take more, they feel good, and we can kind of do it on demand. Unlike, you know, most natural stimuli, you can’t get exactly what you want when you want it.

Ashley: So, what is it about addictive drugs that make us feel so good? Basically these chemicals look and act a lot like chemicals, our brains make in-house so they can produce sensations we’re already able to feel, but on overdrive.

Judy Grisel: Drugs work only by speeding up or slowing down what’s already going on. And I know if you take, you know, psilocybin or heroin you might think, I’ve never had any experience like this, but you have. Because those drugs just produce kind of a, boosted version of what you’ve already have happening.

Things that wouldn’t be familiar to our brains wouldn’t have any effect at all. So these chemicals can interact in the same places that we use for other things.

Ashley: I like to think of it as one of those kids shape sorting toys, where you’re supposed to put the circle piece in the circle hole, the square in the square, and the star in the star. You know what I’m talking about? Or have I just been around zero adults for the last 11 months? Well, think of those pieces as our own natural neurotransmitters. At the molecular level, drugs like cannabis or heroin look just like a square piece or a star piece, so they fit right into the puzzle. Once they’re in, they make the brain do weird things like release way more neurotransmitters than they should, or just mess up the signals brain cells send to other brain cells.

And as a result. We feel things. We might feel euphoria or experience intense energy. Or feel like reality has split apart and we are one with the universe. But nobody would have a problem with drugs if that’s all they did.

Judy Grisel: Every single drug has side effects. And the reason for that is kind of related to this first thing, and that is that, there isn’t a pathway or a neurotransmitter that is responsible for say, sleep and another one for mood and another one for euphoria and another one for dysphoria.

Instead, these chemicals are kind of like letters in the alphabet that are put together in different constellations to lead to different experiences. So it’s kind of the combined effect of all kinds of increases and decreases in activity. And so if you take a drug to change your mood, it’ll also change your sleep and your eating and, you know, maybe your sex drive or something.

Ashley: Change change, change. That’s what drugs do. They make big, often extreme changes to the ways our brains operate. But our brains don’t really like extremes like this.

Judy Grisel: In order for us to tell whether something good or bad happens, we need to have like a standard to compare it to, like a neutral state. When we come off of that neutral state, the brain counteracts it. So it’s kind of like, let’s imagine that you need to know when a, um, pebble drops in the pond. If the pond is totally wild, you know, going up and down and really rough, you wouldn’t see the pebble.

Ashley: With all that water sloshing around you can’t tell if the pebble is a good thing or a bad thing. You don’t know if it’s something that will help you survive or something you need to avoid. And if you can’t tell that you’re less likely to survive.

Judy Grisel: So what the brain is able to do, because it’s a master adapter, is it keeps the pond smooth. And this is well known in psychology.

So for instance, you know, if you lose both your legs in an accident today, you’ll be sad for a while, but you’ll pretty much end up just as happy as you are on average. We have a kind of a neutral state. This is, you know, nothing much going on, and that is maintained really robustly. The brain defends that neutral state.

Ashley: Taking drugs takes us out of neutral and into feeling pretty good.

Judy Grisel: The brain does not go for that because it won’t support our survival. So it counteracts the drugs. Let’s say you take a stimulant. The more you take that, the more lethargic you are without it. If you take a drug that helps you relax, the more anxious you are without it.

Ashley: I know that when I first started drinking coffee. It woke me up and helped me get through my day with energy and pep in my step. But after months, years of drinking it every morning, I basically need it just to hit a baseline level of functioning.

And even more to feel energetic, which then just leaves me feeling jittery and nauseous.

Judy Grisel: Opiate users that are regular habitual users, they don’t get high. They just feel normal when they have opiates on board and when they’re not on board, they feel sick. They’re terrible.

And, alcoholics, you know, they don’t get really wasted. They just feel terrible without it. You know, the main reason people smoke cigarettes if they’re addicted is not because the cigarettes do that much, except take away the withdrawal state. So, that’s the terrible news that whatever you take a drug to do, your brain produces the opposite effect.

The more you take it, the higher dose you take it, and the younger you start, when you take it, the stronger the opposing state becomes. It’s a form of learning and the brain learns to anticipate the drug and to counteract it so that you can stay neutral.


Of course, some drugs have this effect more than others. If you went to a US public school between 1983 and 2009, you probably went through the DARE program. That’s where cops would come into classrooms and teach students about the dangers of drugs and gangs. After decades of studies showing that the program was ineffective at the least, and was sometimes even inspiring kids to try drugs, the curriculum was changed. But that didn’t stop a generation of kids from learning some laughably incorrect things about drug use.

For example, we were taught that taking hallucinogens would give you acid flashbacks for the rest of your life. While flashbacks do happen, they generally happen within days of taking the drug and only lasts for a few seconds.

Some people will continue to have visual disturbances long after their original trip in a condition known as Hallucinogen Persisting Perception Disorder, but scientists say it’s pretty rare.

We were also taught that marijuana was a gateway drug. Even while this was being taught, studies were showing that there was no conclusive evidence that cannabis had any particular qualities that would lead users to try other drugs. Any correlation is more about the type of person who seeks out drugs in the first place and where they go to do it.

But most relevant to this episode is the fact that dare taught us that you could get addicted to some drugs with just one dose, especially heroin. A large scale survey published by epidemiologists in 1994 looked into this by asking more than 8,000 people about their use of drugs.

Of people who had tried the drug at least once, 32% of nicotine users got hooked, but the same was true of just 23% of heroin users and 17% of cocaine users. Alcohol had a dependency rate of 15%, just a little under cocaine.

And cannabis while you may have heard, this is impossible, did lead to dependence in 9% of users.

How Addicts Happen

But it’s about more than just the drugs. It’s also about the individual person.

Why do some people get addicted while others don’t? Well, the age you start is a big factor. Just like speaking a language or riding a bike or reading an analog clock, which I’m still bad at, the effect of drugs is something our brains learn. And the earlier you learn, the more it sticks.

This is an instance when you absolutely do not want to be a child prodigy.

Judy Grisel: Just like it’s harder to learn French when you’re 26 than it is when you’re 16, if you can wait till you’re 26 to start using drugs, then the adaptation isn’t that profound. But if you start when you’re 16, you’re so good at any kind of learning that it’s really hard to undo it. actually is much more likely to change and permanently change the structure and function of your brain when you’re young, which is why most people who have a problem started when they’re young.

So I guess what I’m saying in a way that, probably my mother wouldn’t like me to say, but if you can wait, hold off a little bit, you could really enjoy drugs more.

Ashley: You heard her kids just say no to drugs? Until you’re out of college and you can actually appreciate them in the comfort of your own apartment you pay for, with a job that gives you sick days and a partner who isn’t the school DARE officer’s son. Hi, Clayton. But seriously, this is a big reason why so many laws set 21 is the legal minimum age for drinking alcohol, buying cigarettes and cannabis, and even gambling.

Your brain is still making fundamental changes until age 25. And if an addictive behavior slips in during the baking process, it’s likely to stay there for good.

Judy Grisel: If you pick up addictive drugs before you’re 18, your chances are about one in four. And the earlier, the higher your chances. If you wait till you’re 21, they’re about one in 25.

Ashley: But age is only one factor in the likelihood of someone becoming addicted. Genetics is another. If you have an addict in your family, you’re at higher risk of becoming an addict yourself.

Judy Grisel: I had some in my family and the genes that I think, uh, I could predict my variants. I’m pretty sure there are several that have to do with novelty seeking and risk taking and impulsivity. So people who are high in those things are more likely of course, to say, oh, sure, I’ll drink some wine.

Ashley: This is a big one and it varies depending on the substance. For example, research suggests that alcohol addiction is about 50% heritable. Now that doesn’t mean that if you have a parent, who’s an alcoholic, you have a 50% chance of becoming one yourself. It’s a lot more murky than that. It just means that scientists can chalk up 50% of the variation in alcoholism between people to genetics.

Other drugs can be as much as 70% heritable.

Judy Grisel: The third main group is experience. The things that contribute are having access, having a culture that endorses it, having trauma or stress in your household. Now, that’s aside from adverse childhood experiences. So if you have a lot of trauma in your early life, it’s another recipe because for those kids who might be inclined to pick up, the drugs will really help soothe the bad feelings and the depression and the stress and anxiety.

Ashley: Quick refresher: we are currently living through a global pandemic that has killed nearly 7 million people worldwide. Inflation is at a record high, wage growth has stagnated, every few months there’s a shortage of some essential good, and many of us are terminally online and lonelier than ever. If I were growing up in this world, I’d call that an adverse childhood experience.

Judy Grisel: So adolescents are, I think, even more, much more prone to developing addiction than they were when I was young.

Ashley: The final factor in addiction: good old fashioned chance. Or what scientists call noise.

Judy Grisel: It’s kind of crazy, but the biggest environmental influence is, kind of random. So what it is for each person is hard to identify.

Environmental noise is actually a technical word for the kinds of random things that happen, you know, whether you go to a camp where your roommate snuck in some weed, or you go to a camp where everybody’s rock climbing can make a big difference.


Ashley: Age, genetics, life circumstances, and random chance. That’s a whole lot of dice rolling to get to addiction. And yet, we generally see addiction as an issue of bad character or moral weakness. And that’s a problem.

Judy Grisel: 10,000 people around the globe die every single day because of their excessive use — it’s so prevalent and yet we don’t talk about it. And this is due to stigma.

Ashley: That stigma leads people to feel shame and guilt about their substance use disorder. And despite what social media dogpiles may have you believe, shame and guilt are not great ways to get someone to change their behavior. Studies suggest they lead people to use more, not less.

They also make people avoid getting treatment since that stigma makes healthcare providers treat them like shameful people who are unworthy of help. Same goes for loved ones.

I mean, I want to pause here and say that loving someone with a substance abuse disorder often means a lot of betrayal and disappointment and emotional, and sometimes physical hurt. And how you choose to care for yourself and the people around you is valid. I’m just saying that it’s a reality that the family and friends of an addict might not welcome them with open arms.

And that knowledge can keep them from asking for help.

How to Help a Loved One

Ashley: So, if you care about someone who’s using, how exactly are you supposed to help them?

Judy Grisel: It’s easy to say, as many people said to me, you know, you shouldn’t do this, don’t do this. You’re not living up to your potential. That’s the worst. Um, you know, you, you’re wrecking your life, so you statements, I think, are counterproductive, if anything.

However, the things that affected me were statements about people telling the truth about themselves. It really hurts me to see this. I’m scared. I noticed this last night and I wonder if something’s going on. And if nothing is going on yet, that that rule still holds. Because what it’s saying is that being with each other and sort of witnessing each other.

I think this is so underrated, you know. It’s a superpower.


Judy Grisel: I remember I was with my daughter. Around 17. It was, she wanted nothing to do with either of us. And, uh, I didn’t really want that much to do with her either, to tell you the truth.

She was not that fun. And she had been like the greatest, you know, and she’s pretty great now, but during this particular period, she was like a porcupine. Everything annoyed her and you know, it was just no good. So anyway, I remember talking to a friend who’s much wiser than I am, and she said, just be with her anyway. And so I would say, you know, I don’t want you to be in your room. Come on out. I won’t bother you. And we would sit in the same room. And you know, first she would say like, what are you doing? And I would say, oh, nothing, just being with you. Mostly it was like that. She would just ignore me with kind of a scowl.

But sometimes she would say things like, one of my friends is having a hard time, or I saw this on TikTok, what do you think of that? Or, she would lash out. But I think just being there, kind of like a witness or a mirror is sometimes the best we can do.

And so it’s just, doing the best we can to stay connected, to let each other know we care and that we see.

(outro) Thanks for listening. And if you’re an OG listener, thanks for coming back. I missed you.

Big thanks to Judy Grisel. Again, her book is Never Enough: The Neuroscience and Experience of Addiction. You can find a link to pick it up in the show notes.

Taboo Science is written and produced by me, Ashley Hamer. The theme was by Danny Lopakta of DLC Music. Episode music is from Epidemic Sound. If you need music for a project, use the referral link in the show notes. It’ll help keep the lights on.

Finally, I’m going to ask a favor. The show is back after a long hiatus and the Apple Podcast reviews are dusty. I think a family of possums set up shop in there, to be honest. If you liked this episode, I would be so grateful if you posted a shiny new rating and review in there to let people know that we’re back in business. I might read it on a future episode.

Speaking of which the next episode will be out in two weeks.

I’m excited for this one. Stay tuned.