Blame Evolution: Shame And Stigma Happen Because Addiction Makes People Feel Sick

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How could you do that to yourself? We have heard our family members say with a look of disgust on their face. Addiction isn’t pretty. Under the intoxicating influence of drugs and alcohol, we do things that are offensive to others, yet seem normal to us. The way that people judge and view addiction, as well as those who are addicted, seems to bring an air of sickness. On their faces, a look grows as if they have witnessed something grotesque. Physically, they hunch their shoulders, grasp their stomach, clutch their hand over their mouths as if they might become sick. Something inside them is deeply turned off by the idea of what is unfamiliar and uncomfortable.

According to Robert M. Sapolsky, a neuroendocrinologist, Professor of Biology and Neurology at Stanford University explains to Big Think that the reason people react to what might morally shock them in way that indicates they are being viscerally disturbed has to do with the insular cortex. The insular cortex evolutionarily developed to protect us from harm, like not enjoying the taste of food that is rotting. Visceral disturbances are those physical reactions of disgust. When someone reacts to addiction as though they might gag, their insular cortex is equating the information to a festering wound and sending signals to the body for reaction. “Gradually, our societies developed a concept of moral transgression but evolution didn’t keep pace,” the website explains, “Rather than evolve a new brain region to process moral disgust, it was (and is) funneled through the insular cortex.”

People view addiction through a moral lens, chastising those who are addicted for being “wrong” and “bad” because that is what their defunct insular cortex is sending them the signals to do. Addiction is not a moral issue and those who become addicted are not morally incapacitated, though they are morally inhibited by the effect of drugs on the brain. Drugs and alcohol may very well inhibit these ancient functions of the insular cortex, which is why there are seemingly no lows that one who is addicted would be willing to go to. Without the “ick” factor, someone who is addicted finds themselves in all kinds of situations that might otherwise turn their stomachs and urge them to look away. Since the body is already disabled in the ability to discern moral versus visceral disgust, the presence of mind-altering drugs and alcohol complicates the relationship further. This could be part of the reason it takes many of us a long time to realize that what is happening in our life as a result of addiction has taken a turn for the worst. We are no longer able to recognize the threat to our lives that addiction is causing us because we are numb to the shock factor.


Thankfully, there is freedom from addiction. Tree House Recovery in Portland, Oregon offers men a residential treatment program to help them create sustainable change for sustainable recovery. Call us today for information: (503) 850-2474

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