The Neurons of Recovery

Thursday, June 19, 2008

By Wray Herbert

One of the cornerstones of many addiction treatment programs is what’s called “moral inventory.” Rather than just white-knuckling it through day after miserable day without drugs or alcohol, recovering addicts and alcoholics are taught to honestly and rigorously monitor their daily thoughts and behavior and relationships, and when they do something wrong to promptly set things right. The idea is that personal dishonesty is somehow related to destructive habits, and that authenticity in daily life is a key to staying clean and sober.

Just how this happens is a mystery, and most recovering addicts don’t much care about the details. But psychologists are very interested in the spiritual dimensions of sobriety. How can daily vigilance and small ethical acts—apologizing for being hurtful or rude or uncharitable—translate into the concrete choice not to light up a crack pipe or pour a tumbler of whiskey? What could such moral striving possibly have to do with the tormenting compulsions of addiction?

New brain research may help illuminate this mystery. Psychologist Rebecca Compton of Haverford College and her colleagues have been observing the vigilant brain in action, and exploring the connection between cognitive watchfulness and serenity. They don’t use a spiritual vocabulary, of course. In the jargon of the laboratory, they have been studying “error-related negativity,” or ERN. This is shorthand for an electrical pulse that comes from particular region of the brain, a bundle of neurons known to watch out for mistakes. They have also been studying a separate but nearby part of the brain responsible for correcting errors once they’re spotted. They wanted to see if and how these basic tools of cognitive regulation relate to stress and anxiety in the real world.

Here’s how they set up the experiment. They had college students volunteer to take an exceptionally difficult version of the Stroop Test. You’re probably familiar with this test, because it circulates on the Internet as a kind of parlor game: The names of colors appear on the screen in various colors, and you’re required very rapidly to name the color of the ink—rather than read the word. So the word R-E-D might appear in green, and you have to punch green. It’s very difficult to do, because you have to override the brain’s impulse to read the word. But difficulty is precisely what the psychologists were aiming for, because they wanted the volunteers to make a lot of mistakes.

The volunteers were wired to an EEG while they were taking the Stroop Test, so the researchers could record their ERN pulses. They were in effect gauging how vigilant they were, how much of their brain power they were using to spot errors. At the same time, they measured their speed and accuracy in the test—basically to see how readily they corrected course after detecting a mistake.

Then they sent the volunteers home. But before they did, they asked them to keep a journal of their trials and tribulations and emotional life for a couple weeks. Every night before they went to bed, they assessed the day: Were they under deadline pressure that day? Did they feel overwhelmed by responsibilities? Was there too much to do today, and too little time? That kind of thing. They also kept track of their moods—whether they were anxious or calm or worried or relaxed.

Then they crunched all the data together, with interesting results. As they describe in the July issue of the journal Psychological Science, participants varied both in their levels of vigilance and in their ability to learn from their mistakes. That in itself is not all that surprising, but here’s the interesting part: Those with overall greater cognitive control—the ones who monitored themselves closely and adjusted efficiently—were also the ones who were best at handling stress. Remember that these were college students, so almost all of them felt pressures from deadlines and too much work. But the ones who spotted and corrected errors in their own mental performance were in general more calm and relaxed, even with college life’s predictable stresses. The ones who did not inventory and learn from their mistakes were beaten down by life’s pressures.

Why would this be? It’s not entirely clear, but Compton and her colleagues believe it’s because mental regulation and emotional regulation draw on the same set of skills, perhaps even powered by some common neurons. People who are quick to spot their own slip-ups and quick to fix them are the same people who are good at keeping their emotions in tow when hit by life’s travails. In colloquial language, that’s called not sweating the small stuff. In the language of addiction recovery, it’s often called serenity, or emotional sobriety, and the path there does indeed seem to begin with a simple moral statement: “Oops, I made a mistake.”

For more insights into the quirks of human nature, visit “We’re Only Human . . .” at Selections from the weblog also appear in the magazine Scientific American Mind and at

posted by Wray Herbert @ 3:30 PM


At 4:24 PM , Blogger Greg said...

Very interesting indeed, Wray! I like these studies where science & spirituality come together in some way.