Addiction is a funny thing in our culture -- people who are actually addicted to a substance actively deny it ("I just like to smoke!"), while other people claim addiction for every random thing they happen to enjoy ("I'm addicted to these delicious candy bars!").
But as science gets a better understanding of how addiction works in the brain, suddenly a whole lot of our everyday habits make more sense. Things like ...
#5. Listening to Pop Music
Pop music is something that tends to divide people in ways normally reserved for large military conflicts. Its advocates idolize the artists and their music, while its opponents brand anyone interested in pop as mindless drones who don't know "real" music. But while one can hate Lady Gaga all he wants, there's no changing the fact that she has sold over 64 million records, and the sales of her last album actually caused Amazon.com's servers to crash. Whatever indie-shoegazer-electro-orchestral-Celtic tunes a pop hater prefers are unlikely to ever attain such levels of popularity.
"He plays looped eighth notes over synthesized samples of prosthetic limbs turning in their sockets.
I'm pretty sure he's the next John Lennon."
It's pretty strange, when you really stop and think about it. In most expressive arts we tend to value ability -- so why do the teeming masses prefer simple pop instead of, say, complex progressive music or speed metal, which, according to fans, require a lot more technical prowess from the artists? Why aren't little girls going to school with Yngwie Malmsteen backpacks (besides, you know, the very idea being creepy as hell)?
The checks to therapists practically write themselves.
Maybe it's a marketing thing. Maybe the music has a wide generational appeal. Or, hell, maybe everyone is just flat out stupid. Or maybe it's because your brain is so hooked on pop music that it doesn't matter what you think.
Yes, pop music is basically cranial crack, to the point that scientists have actually been able to predict which songs would become big sellers by hooking kids up to an MRI scanner and playing previously unheard pop tunes for them. When a future hit came on, the pleasure center of the brain lit up like a Christmas tree.
This is where your brain stores all the sex, drugs and rock 'n' roll.
Here's the curious thing: The participants were also surveyed about the songs, and the reviews they gave them were significantly different from what their brain scans revealed. Yes, although the songs gave their brains the kind of high you usually have to break a bunch of laws to achieve, they consciously went against their brainwaves in order to seem less inclined to pop music than the MRI scanner showed they were.
And not only does your brain go apeshit when it hears catchy, poppy music, but also it actually derives pleasure from predicting the melodies as you listen, anticipating the emotion associated with certain types of music. This leads to a one-two punch where you get one thrill when your brain is expecting something to happen, and when it actually does another rush of dopamine comes in from an entirely different part of the brain. And this is where your brain enters Addict Mode. The easiest way for it to get its dopamine fix is tunes that are simple, predictable and repetitive -- so that's what it prefers, no matter your views on the artistic merits. That's right -- no matter how carefully hipster you are, or how hardcore a metalhead image you maintain, your brain is secretly into Bieber.
Maybe that's going a little far.
#4. Eating Salty and Spicy Snacks
Go to the snack aisle at your nearest grocery store, and you'll find three things: sweet, salty and spicy.
Sweet foods make sense -- cells use sugar as their primary source of energy. Your body knows this, so it rewards you for cramming your mouth full of it (to the point that it keeps tasting good to us right up until we've eaten so much that we need a scooter to get around). But why are we so into salt? After all, salt is just tiny freaking rocks. Or, even weirder, stuff that burns our tongue? What exactly are potato chips and jalapeno-flavored everything doing for us?
"Every pore in my face is screaming right now and I am all about that."
Let's take on salt first. You need salt (or more specifically, sodium) to live -- it regulates blood pressure and keeps your nerves working. Your body has no means of producing it, and humans evolved in an environment where salt is a trace element (making it so valuable that in the old days it was commonly used as a form of currency). So your brain has evolved to treat it like precious gold. Or, you know, cocaine.
Image courtesy of Getty, our intern with a serious problem.
Salty foods may in fact act as an antidepressant, the brain's way of rewarding us for staving off extinction. And just as with any addiction, the brain doesn't know when to turn it off -- the pleasure centers of your brain get accustomed to the high, demanding more and more. And, just to make things even worse, salt may actually contribute to changing our brain chemistry, so that instead of feeling full after eating, we just keep craving more. Combining it with fat and other elements in junk food is actually thought to be about as addictive as heroin.
That's why, while salt may have been rare at one time, it sure as hell isn't rare in the junk food aisle -- the average American consumes over twice as much sodium as needed every day, which in turn contributes to the 400,000 heart disease deaths every year.
"I don't regret a single deep-fried salt lick."
OK, so what the hell is the deal with spicy or "hot" foods? Why do we voluntary subject our mouths to actual pain, even from childhood (to the point that one school had to ban Flamin' Hot Cheetos because the kids were so into them that they were leaving trails of that orange powdery residue everywhere)?
The chemicals in spicy food irritate the trigeminal nerve, which is responsible for, oh, not much, just all the sensation in your goddamned face. Scientists theorize that the irritation causes the brain to release endorphins to ease the discomfort by, well, giving the eater a natural high. And like any high, you want it again, and to make it more intense. That's right -- people who love spicy foods are addicted to pain.
Two sides, one coin.
#3. Using Lip Balm
If we were compiling a list of boring, harmless things impossible to get hooked on, chances are lip balm would be #1, except it's so boring and harmless that we'd probably forget to include it. Yet ...
The average person eats roughly three sticks over the course of a lifetime.
... there are actual websites out there dedicated solely to helping people overcome their lip balm addiction. There are actual living and breathing people claiming to be addicted to goddamn ChapStick. Occasionally, they will even seek help from the Internet for their crippling addiction ... with the exact results you'd expect.
But all the snarkiness behind that link does in fact hide a few interesting points. For instance, the mention that the supposed buzz you get from using lip balm is actually caused by the menthol, camphor and phenol used in it. Now wait just a second. Phenol? The same phenol that is corrosive to the eyes, skin and respiratory tract, and is also used as an embalming agent? The same phenol that can cause instantaneous death after injecting one gram?
The same phenol that makes your lips feel fantastic?
Yep, that's the one. Lip balm maker Carmex claims that it's included in the mix to "reduce the itching and burning associated with dry chapped lips." What they completely fail to mention, however, is the fact that this stuff -- along with a bunch of other substances commonly used in lip balms -- will actually irritate your lips more in the long run. That's right, the greasy crap you are slathering on your lips in an effort to keep them from flaking off is actually the very thing that's drying them out. What's worse, you tend to lick your lips a lot when you use lip balm, which also contributes to the dryness.
The relief from the dryness and discomfort that a lip balm provides your pie hole is a temporary fix, kind of like a smoker who suppresses his tobacco cough with another cigarette. This rush combines with the habit of compulsively applying the balm. When you throw some oral fixation into the mix (which, as any ex-smoker who has found himself chewing through a fountain pen will testify, is a bitch to get over), it all adds up to a pretty legitimate, if extremely stupid, psychological addiction.
Childhood officially ends the day you realize "cold sores" is a synonym for "face herpes."