Beyond the “Unbroken Brain”

In Maia Szlavavitz’s new book “The Unbroken Brain” Maia articulately lays out a subtle and nuanced idea: Addiction is a developmental disorder. It is a beautiful (although not new) idea that bridges the gap between the brain disease model of addiction and the idea that addicts are selfish amoral people “model” of addiction. The idea that addiction is developmental in nature accounts for the vast majority of what we see in the addicted populations. Addiction as a developmental disorder posits that there is correlation between addictive behavior and a stuck or disordered learning process. It also posits that the solution for addiction is growing, learning and changing. This is spot on and would seem obvious, except for some reason this view has not spread or been articulated well to the mainstream. It is important to not that this theory does not account for why some people who get stuck along the course of healthy development, also get stuck in a cycle of addiction, and others don’t, this remains a mystery.

The interesting question to ask about addiction as a developmental disorder is what type of developmental disorder is it (i.e. in what areas are people stuck and or split?) Is there a construct that can account for the diversity and totality of the stuck states we find in the addicted population? In fact there is: The Developmental Integrity Theory of Addiction. Dr. Charles Blakeney a Harvard psychologist (and proudly my father) and researcher hypothesized in 2002 that clients suffering from addiction were suffering from a state of dis-integration. The idea was that people with addiction had underlying developmental disturbances that kept them stuck in addictive cycles, put simply they weren’t whole. This dis-integration was due to certain parts of the self becoming stuck (not growing) in the course of development. When one part of the self is growing and another is not, it creates a split, a developmental disturbance that essentially if unaddressed manifests as stress, pain, anger, anxiety or cut-offness. The Developmental Integrity theory posits that people are medicating their splits with drugs, alcohol and other escapist behaviors. The theory goes beyond the Unbroken brain hypothesis, and articulates specifically what types of developmental disorders lie underneath the addictive behaviors.

Integrity is when the parts of the self fit and flow, have a strength in character, and the potential for transformation. Underneath all addictive states is a dis-integration, a lack of fit flow, a lack of transformative potential. Dr. Blakeney engaged 700 people in the addicted population, and all 700 had the predicted dis-integration. It is important not to understate in a 10 yr. longitudinal study 100% of people who were tested coming in to treatment had these predicted states of developmental spits or delays. The theory is quite revolutionary because for the first time there is a construct that accounts for the diversity we see in the addicted populations. It also gives treatment a whole new way to understand and treat addiction. The test can pinpoint clients underlying issues and prescribe the correct therapeutic approach.

Unbroken Brain has begun to popularize the idea that the causes of addiction are developmental, the question becomes, now that we are beginning to understand this, what are we going to do about it?

AUTHOR: Yeshaia Blakeney