How Much Are You Really in Control?

The Fine Line Between Abstinence and Addiction

Your typical addictive substances

The Biology of Addiction

It is a widely known fact that addiction is a biological phenomenon. The increasing reliance on a certain substance, for without it will lead to withdrawal symptoms, is caused by the complex biochemical systems in the addict’s body. The biochemical systems involved for the different types of addiction, such as nicotine, caffeine or drugs such as cocaine are different, but all of them revolve around a similar concept, which involves receptors and their substrates.

A simple synapse diagram

Mental Willpower vs Bodily Systems

There are many instances in which human mental willpower is relied on to achieve different purposes. For one, let’s take a look into new year’s resolution. On every new year, a popular trend is to reflect upon the past year, and set new personal goals for the new year. The purpose of a new year’s resolution is to let go of past regrets, only looking forward and hopefully spurring productivity into the new year. However, failure rates of such resolutions are high year after year. A study from 1989 tracked 200 people living in Pennsylvania as they attempted to make changes based on New Year’s resolutions. 77% of respondents managed to hold to their pledges for 1 week, but the success rate dropped to 19% over 2 years. This is but a mere indication of the frailty of human determination, as there are many flaws with using new year’s resolutions as a measurement of willpower, such as the lack of commitment from the start, or the creation of the resolution out of peer and societal pressure.

Addiction vs Free Will

As established earlier, the addictive feeling is a complex combination of biological feedback from our bodies when we consume addictive substances. When we consume such substances frequently, an automatic and unconscious response builds up in the body, resulting in, say, cravings for said substance. However, since the act of consuming the drug is ultimately a conscious effort, there presents one last hurdle to cross before spiraling into addiction, which is the conscious response. But how strong is our conscious response? Will we still possess free will and limit our substance intake?


Evidently, the overarching question of control and free will when consuming addictive substances have yet to be answered conclusively. There are many cases where people could quit and escape from the addiction cycle using sheer willpower, and there are also cases where addiction renders a person to lose his/her autonomy in decision-making. Both stances are well-justified, and the answer lies as a blurred point somewhere in between the two extremes, also varying from person to person, depending on environment and/or genes. Further studies and neurological experiments might shift the scales to either side, but as of now, this is all we know.



Critically analysing life a lot more than I should.

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