I’ll Be a Son-of-a-Psychiatrist: Addiction Recovery – It’s a Go-Brainer Revisted



My first exposure to the importance of my brain

My first exposure to the importance of my brain

When I was a kid my psychiatrist Dad decided to bring home a human brain from the hospital where he worked. It was one of the specimens donated by a dearly departed soul for physicians to study. Dad decided it was important for me and my older siblings to pay attention to our one and only brain. He said, “I’ve got a surprise for you, now close your eyes, hold hands while I lead you into the Family Room.” He positioned the four of us around the game table as we heard him removing the brain from its container. I can still “smell” the pungent odor of the preservative, formaldehyde as I recall this understandably, vivid memory and my Dad saying, “Okay, open your eyes.” WOW.

Needless to say, I have been fascinated by brains and brain science ever since and as a person in long-term addiction recovery, a very good thing.

Good news for addiction recovery

Good news for addiction recovery

I’m re-reading Dr. Norman Doidge’s great book, The Brain That Changes Itself. He’s one of the people who ushered in and popularized the idea that our brains are like computers in the sense they can reprogram themselves, but unlike computers, our brains can heal themselves. While reading, (actually, listening) I just can’t help but get super excited about the far reaching implications of this work when it comes to addiction recovery.

Here’s what Dr. Doidge and the brain science are telling us:

  • Our brain processing centers have the ability to change
  • We can change the very structure of the brain itself
  • The brain is constantly adapting itself to the environment
  • The brain is always learning how to learn
  • The brain grows and changes itself with proper nourishment and exercise
  • The brain can reorganize its “maps” (programmed routines) in the right environment

The brain is not the fixed, rigidly organized organ we or my Dad once thought, but capable of re-learning and restructuring–actually changing the physical architecture of itself, “from crib to death.”

All of what we have learned works in addiction treatment is related to programs, modalities, therapies and practices that actually reprogram the brain, which just happens to be the target organ for addiction. Our former practices in active addiction established ingrained brain maps, (thanks, Lisa Frederiksen) or the above mentioned, programmed routines that our minds, bodies and spirits became accustomed to, and what most people in addiction recovery will agree, we held onto for dear life–even at the risk of near death.

As we know now, the not-so-healthy former habits came about as strategies for coping with one or more of the risk factors for developing addiction. Once we’re committed to leaving behind these strategies and behaviors that changed our brains profoundly, the task is to find what new practices will change our brains back toward what we all want; peace of mind, good health and productivity. “Just say no” never worked because it was contrary to the brain science and…just wrong.

Reprogrammable brain maps

Reprogrammable brain maps

Addiction recovery requires establishing new brain maps, a lifetime proposition–hey, good news!–of practice and reinforcement that turns out to be what any kind of wellness demands. Nobody gets out alive; it’s just about being well–today. All of wellness is one kind of remission or another…Let me stress again, implicit in this requirement is bolstering brain health and new brain maps with the essential practices of eating, moving, thinking, feeling and sleeping well without which the brain will not change itself in the ways desired. This is why all three phases of addiction treatment; detoxification, rehabilitation and continued care are required for healthy, sustainable remission from active addiction to be possible. Remember, repetition is how the brain learns and changes.

Addiction Recovery | New Practices | New Brains

If the science has shown us anything it’s that there is no one, best way to foster the business of rewiring the brain for better outcomes. What inspires me is the fact that the programs that have proven to help people are just what the brain science ordered. For example, here’s what Dr. Doidge reports about what brain science research tells us followed by the time honored wisdom of Alcoholics Anonymous:

  • Repetition is the mother of all invention – “Keep comin’ back”
  • Brain plasticity (reprogramming ability) is available from the cradle to the grave – “One day at a time”
  • Neurons that fire together, wire together – “Fake it till you make it”
  • Radical improvements in brain function are available at any age – “Now is a good time to start”
  • New brain maps take time to develop – “May you be blessed with a slow recovery”
  • The brain thrives and actually grows when learning – “Learn to change, change to learn”

And the 12 Step process is just one way to take a look at how we’re taking a look at things, (the learning brain) to establish new brain maps and associated practices to reinforce them in order to override the previous brain maps. There are many ways and the key is to find a way that uses an integrated approach catering to the needs of your mind, body and spirit–however that looks. Rewiring the brain mandates it and long-term recovery cannot be possible without it.

In brain science lingo and as seen above, “Neurons that fire together, wire together”, (creating new brain maps). Conversely, when the practice/repetition ceases, “If the neurons fail to link–they fail to sync” and no new brain maps. In that case, the brain fires up the already ingrained maps associated with the old, well practiced behavior–when cued–and relapse ensues.

Different Paths to the Mountain of Evidence Based Research

The self-healing, reprogrammable brain

The self-healing brain

So addiction recovery is not about monolithic, one-way approaches. This is because we all have different experiences and worldviews. What is clear however is that individuals with addiction do have to find ways to establish new brain maps for the reasons outlined above and there are many wonderful interventions to begin the process including:

Implicit in the American Society of Addiction Medicine policy statement, an integrated, multidisciplinary team of providers can help in the initial, stabilization/rehabilitation phases of treatment to assist people in finding their own mind, body, and spirit fitness program in order to reprogram that biological computer of theirs, the self-healing brain. The goal is that these practices get carried into the final phase of addiction treatment; continued care.

As we re-learn to move, eat and think/feel well, we’re really and truly reprogramming our brains. We’re really and truly giving up the habit of the being who we are that’s no longer working for us, for the habit of being who we can be–to become the best versions of ourselves.

I think my Dad was trying to tell me something very important…


Thank you to the sentient beings who help us heal

Thank you to the sentient beings who help us heal

And now I’m going to appeal to your humanity and your heart by saying that there was a huge price to pay to learn more about how we can indeed heal ourselves resulting from brain science research. I’ll have to admit I’m such a baby, the dolphins make me cry, but must say that untold throngs of laboratory animals suffered and gave their lives for this research to come forward. There is nothing more upsetting to me to know that information is available to people, but not accessible for one reason or another–while innocent sentient beings gave their lives in the process.

Let’s uphold the dignity of our humanity and of recovery and the sanctity of those who went before us, (all forms and species) who have made addiction recovery ever more possible in this 21st Century.

Addiction recovery – It’s a Go-Brainer.

Let’s Go.

Dr. Herby Bell is a Recovery and Wellness Coach and owner of Recovery Health Care, an integrated approach to wellness and addiction recovery in Saratoga, California. For more information please call 650 474 9411 or Email: herbybell@me.com.  Connect with me online too:  Facebook | Twitter | Linkedin

Join the discussion 15 Comments

  • So agree with this line, “all three phases of addiction treatment; detoxification, rehabilitation and continued care are required for healthy, sustainable remission from active addiction to be possible.” I wish more treatment programs would be involved in the continued care piece. It seems that it can become a vicious cycle of treatment, relapse and more treatment, when it doesn’t need to happen that way if people are supported after their treatment in a holistic manner until they are well into long term recovery. The Brain That Changes Itself sounds like an interesting book, and one that explains why the integrated approach to recovery is essential. This is information we all need to know.
    Cathy Taughinbaugh Wants You To Read…Could You Be Suffering From a “Dual Diagnosis”?My Profile

  • Hey Doc!
    Great story. I can picture the family around the game table for the unveiling. You paint a precise picture. The brain is amazingly fascinating, isn’t it? I’m with you 100%. Can’t tell you the number of times I’ve watched brain surgeries/dissections on YouTube (yes, I admit it). I’ve read Doidge’s book, and it’s WONDERful. Learning from Doidge and others led to the Chipur article on neuroplasticity (hope you don’t mind me sharing the link) http://chipur.com/the-hope-of-neuroplasticity/. So much we don’t know, yet so much we’re learning – that can positively impact compulsive behavior issues, as well those of the emotional/mental. If we play our cards right, the future is bright (we gotta’ wear shades?). Really appreciate your passion, Herby…
    Bill White, Licensed Counselor Wants You To Read…Stories of Courage and Hope | I Want Your Mission (Im)Possible TaleMy Profile

  • Some forms of psychotherapy also used other forms of communication, including writing, artwork, drama, narrative story or music. Sessions take place within a structured encounter between a qualified therapist and a client or clients. Purposeful, theoretically based psychotherapy started in the 19th century with psychoanalysis; it has developed significantly since then.

    • HerbyBell says:

      Agreed…many different “ways in” to access the brain maps. We are truly blessed to live in 2014 where so many great modalities and healing traditions are available. Integrated, synergistic efforts well appreciated by this kid…

  • Beth Wilson says:

    I keep singing in my head, “If I only had a brain!” I so appreciate your ability to whittle down the science to proportions my pea-brain can take in and make the study fun in the process! I also LOVE the way you ended the piece–such a tender heart, you have, kind sir.

    But what I really enjoyed are your comparisons between the sayings we 12-steppers love and Dr. Doidge research, especially this one: Neurons that fire together, wire together – “Fake it till you make it”

    Thanks, Herby, for another stellar post!
    Beth Wilson Wants You To Read…What Are Your Successes, Great and Small?My Profile

  • This is an amazing post, Herby, and not only because of the content but the intrigue and writing style – so enjoyed reading it. And, I, too, loved Doidge’s book.

    i really like the way you emphasized the point that addiction treatment is a three-staged process (like the treatment model used for all other chronic diseases!), and that there are many paths for treatment and recovery (like many other diseases, as well). The emphasis on the brain helps a reader see that their brain may be different than someone else’s for many many reasons, thus what works for their brain may also be different. And what a wonderful share of science with 12-step program concepts!
    Lisa Frederiksen – BreakingTheCycles.com Wants You To Read…Alcohol Awareness Month – Two Sides to the Drinking EquationMy Profile

  • P.S. – love the term, “Go-Brainer!!”

    • HerbyBell says:


      Thank you for clarifying the important distinction that with our different experiences and worldviews we all very definitely have different brain maps to work with. You’re leading me to that very healing endeavor of the challenge to learn what it REALLY is like to live in another person’s “shoes”…and hence a considerable challenge in addiction treatment with all of, as you say, the many many reasons we are unique. As I write, I realize this does not necessarily map with AA’s contention that we can indeed die of terminal uniqueness, but you get my drift. The question I savor is how do we get TO the maps to begin the work? Many ways, as you say…Thanks for being here, Lisa. You make my brain GO.
      HerbyBell Wants You To Read…Addiction is a Cultural Phenomenon – A Tragedy near Woodside, CaliforniaMy Profile

  • If you need psychotherapy, go for it. And don’t be embarrassed on asking for help.

    • HerbyBell says:

      I couldn’t agree more, Doc. Brain health is what ALL of good health is about. Thank you for your comments and the good work you are providing for people.

  • David Ryan says:

    A real brain? Wow. Wasn’t it scary to look at it?
    David Ryan Wants You To Read…The CalculatrMy Profile

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