The Elephant of Addiction

9Do you know the fable about four blind men who discover an elephant? Each of them grabs hold of a different part, and proceeds to describe the animal from that perspective.  

The man with his arms around a leg declares that an elephant is like a tree trunk. The man who holds an ear disagrees because he’s sure an elephant is a flat piece of leather, while a third holds the tail, saying an elephant is something like a length of rope. I don’t remember if the fourth man has the trunk or a tusk, but I’m sure you get the point.

I was reminded of this story when I listened to a BBC Radio 4 programme last month called Constant Craving. The programme asked, and attempted to answer, the controversial question of whether food addiction exists.

One person was said to provide a psychological view of addiction, as being “an obsession, a compulsion, something that overrides everything else”, while another said that addiction is “just a powerful habit”. A cognitive psychologist suggested that many people use the idea of being addicted as an excuse to live as a hopeless victim of it.

The programme presenter, Sally Marlow, added that addiction could be a product of learning, a matter of choice, a reflection of the environment or culture – or a matter of genes.

A researcher named Dr John Menzies spoke about signals sent from the gut to the brain by appetite hormones released into the blood, while Dr Nora Volkow explained,

“A common element in these two disorders – drug addiction and morbid obesity driven by excessive eating – is the proper control and regulation of the areas of the brain that are necessary for us to exert self-control. It is, perhaps, equivalent to driving without brakes.”

At no point in the programme did anyone suggest that every one of these descriptions might co-exist, as one, elephant-sized addiction to food.

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