The term ‘subconscious’ tends to get bandied around a lot in relation to addiction. It is almost used as a catch all to explain the non-physical addiction. If an addict is through the physical withdrawal but still returns to their drug of choice, seemingly in direct contravention of logic, then it is often blamed on the ‘subconscious’ without any attempt to explain what is meant by the ‘subconscious’ or what it’s role is in relation to addiction. 

In fact the key to understanding the role of the subconscious in relation to addiction is firstly to understand exactly what the subconscious mind is, and how it works.

The conscious, thinking part of our brain is 17% of the total brain. The rest is the subconscious. The brain receives approximately 2,000 bits of information per second and the vast majority of these are routed to the subconscious. The role of the subconscious is essentially to process information that you do not have the capacity to process consciously. What it does in effect is to automate certain actions that, when repeated regularly, seem to confer an actual benefit. It is easiest explained with reference to examples.

If you are a driver have you ever been sat in a car as a passenger, with a driver who leaves breaking too late? Did you find your left leg tensing? There is no logical reason for this; after all as a passenger you don’t have a break under your left foot. The reason that you do this anyway, despite there being no break on the passenger’s side, is that for however many years you have been driving, your subconscious has noted that extending your left leg will slow down a vehicle. So when you are in a vehicle that isn’t slowing down when you think it ought to, the subconscious kicks in and extends your left leg.

Or have you ever had a power cut, or had your water turned off? Did you find yourself constantly turning on light switches and taps despite the fact you knew there was no water or electricity? Again it is your subconscious kicking in, walk into a dark room, reach for a light switch. Need water? Turn on the tap.

I think you probably get the idea. Do something a few hundred times and your subconscious will incorporate it. The more you do something, the deeper it is ingrained. The subconscious is not a unknown, unknowable force. It is a standard, straightforward, psychological process.

Once we have a proper understanding of the subconscious it becomes easier to see how it applies to addiction. Drugs are either stimulants or depressants, they either wake us up or dull us down, either way they can be perceived to convey a benefit. Stimulants make us feel more awake and perky; depressants dull the effects of tiredness, anxiety, fear, worry etc. Take a drug a few times and your subconscious will start to form conclusions and incorporate it into your subconscious reactions. The end result of this is that every time you feel stressed, or tired, or suffer the withdrawal from whatever drug you are taking, your subconscious pops up and tells you to reach for that drug, whatever it might be.

The problem is of course that the subconscious is, although very useful in many areas, horribly stupid. All it looks at is immediate cause and effect; it can reason no further than that. Smoke a cigarette? Great, you feel more awake from the nicotine and you’ve relieved the withdrawal so let’s keep doing that, the heart disease, cancer, lethargy etc just doesn’t form part of the ‘reasoning’. Take a drink? Lovely, you feel more relaxed, so let’s keep doing that, and not even consider the hangover, the drunken arguments, the relationship and work problems that result from it. Inject some heroin? Wow that’s taken the edge off life and those terrible withdrawal pangs, so let’s keep doing that, the fact that we’ll be dead very soon isn’t even part of the equation.

The working of the subconscious also explains why people tend to become addicted to some drugs far quicker than others. In fact it is not so much the drug as the method by which it is imbibed. The subconscious simply applies cause to effect, or in the case of drug addiction, with imbibing the drug with the effect of it. If the effect of the drug is felt very quickly after imbibing it, then the subconscious will link the cause and effect with one another far quicker. In terms of imbibing, this is usually smoking, drinking, injecting or snorting. In terms of effect, the effect of a drug is felt when it enters the bloodstream. So the quicker the effect of the drug is felt after it is imbibed the quicker the subconscious will link the cause and effect and the quicker the addiction will take place. In order of speed from quickest to slowest in terms of feeling the effect of a drug after taking it, the methods of consuming a drug are:

  • Injection – which places the drug directly into the bloodstream.
  • Smoking – the smoke diffuses directly into large blood vessels that receive oxygenated blood directly from the lungs and affects the user within less than a second of the first inhalation.
  • Snorting – the drug is absorbed into the bloodstream through the soft tissue in the sinus cavity.
  • Swallowing – this is the slowest method as the drug has to pass through the stomach and into the small intestine before it is absorbed into the bloodstream.