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Pleasure and pain

Pleasure and Drugs

Avoiding Pain

Do animals take drugs? Some birds get drunk after eating grape seeds that have fermented. In Africa, baboons that eat the fermented fruit of the marula tree show signs of drunkenness, such as staggering. Hens can get drunk from apple cider, then run around in all directions with their eyes rolled up in their sockets. In the southern United States, after sheep and horses have grazed on astragalus, a plant related to clover, they start to do strange things, like taking huge leaps to clear tiny obstacles, or running around in circles for hours.

In all these cases, however, it is very hard to tell whether the animals are actually ingesting these materials deliberately in order to become intoxicated, or whether that is just an unintended consequence of eating these materials.


There are many reasons that people take substances that alter their mental state. (Place your cursor over the name of each substance to see some examples).

In all these cases, taking the drug provides an immediate sense of pleasure or relief that encourages the person to take it again. Almost all drugs act as positive-reinforcement agents.

In fact, drugs capitalize on a system that the human species has evolved to reinforce behaviours favourable to its survival–behaviours such as eating or having sex, both of which generate pleasure and a sense of well being.

Drug-taking is nothing more than an artificial means of activating this natural system. The danger with certain drugs is precisely that they short-circuit this natural pleasure-producing pathway. As a result, to try to forget what they experience as intolerable realities, people may start to consume substances abusively, then end up so overwhelmed by their dependencies that they forget even their most basic needs.

Drug consumption runs along a continuum from occasional recreational use to outright dependency.

The risk that you run when you consume drugs is somewhat like the risk that paddlers take when they approach a giant waterfall. Most of them turn back. Others try the first few rapids to experience the thrill of a calculated risk. A still smaller group brave the worst dangers to experience intense sensations, but still know how to pull out if they feel themselves losing control. But some people cannot resist the urge to keep going, and they tumble over the edge.


Linked Module: Real-Life Stories Linked Module: Treatment: Changing Lives Linked Module: Prevention: The Next Generation Linked Module: Centre Dollard-Cormier
Linked Module: Linked Module: L'Association des intervenants en toxicomanie du Québec inc. Linked Module: Canadian Centre on Substance Abuse Linked Module: Experts say the definition of addiction is evolving.
Linked Module: Bourse, sport, drogue : même dépendance

How long it takes to become “hooked” on a substance depends on both the individual and the substance. It can take a fairly long time to become addicted to alcohol, but very little time to become addicted to other substances, such as heroin. Some people become heroin-dependent within as little as two weeks.

Usually, when we hear the word “dependency”, we immediately think of dependency on drugs–substances that people introduce into their bodies. But there is a second major category of dependency: dependency on a particular activity. In this case, the molecules that create the dependency are secreted by our own bodies. The activity may be a sport, or a game, or being with a particular person, or any other situation that provides strong sensations.

The term “cravings” is used to describe the feelings experienced by people who have dependencies. The word "addiction" comes from a legal term in Old French that means “indenturement” –the act of becoming a slave to pay off one’s debts.


Taking a drug for pleasure does not lead inevitably to dependency. Someone can start to be considered dependent on a particular psychoactive substance when they display an irresistible, compulsive need to keep taking it.

Experts have identified several signs of drug dependency. If someone displays several of them, that is a good indication that they have become dependent on the drug in question. These signs include:

  • a persistent desire for the drug and an inability to stop taking it;
  • the development of a tolerance for the drug that forces them to keep taking larger doses to achieve the same effects;
  • the onset of withdrawal symptoms when they cannot obtain the drug;
  • spending a great deal of their time obtaining the drug, consuming it, and recovering from its effects;
  • an inability to stop or control their consumption of the drug, even when it goes against their own values;
  • continuing to take the drug, even when they recognize the major physical, psychological, and social problems caused by this behaviour.

In varying degrees, we are all dependent on something, because dependency is closely related to the pursuit of pleasure. And we are all predisposed to repeat pleasant experiences, because this has proven an effective survival strategy in the evolution of our species.

The problem, then, is to manage our pleasure so that it does in fact do us more good than harm, because dependencies have physical and psychological components that help to keep dependent people in a self-destructive spiral of consumption

Dependencies are often characterized by periods of abstinence followed by episodes of recidivism. Such episodes usually occur when people find themselves back in the circumstances that were associated with their dependency ritual. Smokers who have quit know how strongly they can be tempted to smoke in situations where they used to have a cigarette, such as after a meal, or in a bar, or when they are trying to solve a problem. Similarly, former drug addicts who return to the environment where they used to take drugs run a higher risk of falling back into their old habits. Dopamine, a chemical messenger involved in the reward circuit, may play a very specific role in this environmental triggering effect.

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