OUPS Conference 2022: Addiction
Arriving to the university of Warwick’s beautiful campus in glorious sunshine for the May 2022 Open University Psychological Society [OUPS] Conference, Addiction, and finding an ice cream van, was an unexpected delight. That Warwick is always an adventure goes without saying, but May 2022’s weekend was especially eventful and included some surreal moments, such as the simultaneous invasion of blokes and tweens, World Naked Gardening Day being the same day as Warwick hosting the Young Horticulturist of the Year Competition 2022, and a passionate debate about Hannibal/Silence of the Lambs during the quiz!
But I digress.
The Radcliffe bar is a great pre-dinner location following check-in and unpacking. Meetings take place between old friends, new bonds are formed, and first day-at-school anxieties soon dissipate. The bar hummed until Rockstar of Psychology Professor Frederick Toates arrives with wife, and collaborator, Olga Coschug-Toates. Heads turn, people smile, and all is right in the OUPS Warwick world! The first of the Warwick meals follows, which is a further opportunity to meet people, especially on the same course programme as you. It is a 90-minute slot, so you can dine-and-dash back to the bar, your room, or, if the initial influx is a bit much, you can go later in the slot. After our dinner slot was the opening lectures for the weekend.
Friday night started with Fred delivering a brilliant lecture introducing addiction. The addictions included chemicals such as, nicotine, alcohol, and cocaine, and non-chemical, for example, sex, gambling, and electronic devices. Both categories included some entries which surprised me somewhat. For example, processed foods were an example of a chemical addiction, and self-injurious behaviours as a non-chemical example. Processed foods are significantly over-consumed to such a degree they inspired my MSc dissertation, but I was nonetheless surprised by their inclusion as a chemical addiction. Self-injury is a complex phenomenon but similarly not one I explicitly considered an addiction, despite the personally wounding example (an unfortunate/apt pun! ☺) of such behaviour presented. These surprising entries were illustrative of a wider issue of addiction however: the importance and contested nature of definitions. Fred’s introduction lecture included multiple definitions, including those of forthcoming lecturer Nick Heather. There was a question-and-answer session following which further demonstrated the diversity of addiction and that of the background of those attending the OUPS Conference weekend. A great start!
The first lecture of Saturday’s programme was Free Will and Addiction by Professor Gerben Meynen. It was a truly thought-provoking lecture. Free will is an enduring philosophical debate and one that has an interesting dimension in addiction through its relationship to the criminal justice system. Free will is an important aspect in law as it can determine everything from the crime itself to the sentence. If a person commits a crime under the influence of a substance they are addicted to, it can be considered that they were acting without free will. Gerben’s lecture included many different debates, articles, and aspects of free will and addiction. During the Q&A, there was a question about free will and quantum physics. I cannot pretend to understand the question or the answer! My almost-illegible notes include mentions of determinism, our world as a Newtonian world, and Schrödinger's cat. However, there is also a scrawl concerning the first time trying an addictive substance. If a person tries a drug at university and later experiences an addiction to that drug, where did or does their free will end? What if the person’s first time trying a drug is at 13 years old? What if the person is 15 years old and has mental health conditions? A powerful lecture which demonstrated the complexities of addiction issues that we may not always consider, such as, the notion of free will.
Our second Saturday lecture was Is Addiction a Brain Disease? by Professor Nick Heather. Nick spoke about the brain disease model of addiction (BDMA) which has been a dominant force in conceptualisations of addiction. The question lending the title of Nick’s lecture is the wrong question. Nick highlighted that as there is no universally accepted definition of ‘disease’, the question is better phrased as, ‘is addition best regarded as a brain disease?’. Nick is a key member of the Addiction Theory Network, [https://addictiontheorynetwork.org/origin-and-history/], whose mission statement is to oppose the dominant influence of the Brain Disease Model of Addiction, and to collaborate on developing alternative ways of understanding and responding to addiction. Nick presented work from myriad sources about addiction in a fascinating lecture. There was a lot of material in this lecture, but the importance of definitions and the recognition of context in addiction was particularly significant because so many theories can obscure or dismiss these arguably crucial aspects, including the BDMA. This was a fantastic lecture which ingeniously linked to the other lectures in the conference through its highlighting the issue of definition and context.
No post-lunch slump for us as we got back on the horse with Fred’s Sex and Love Addiction talk! Sex and love addiction have different features, such as the number of targets being greater for the former, as well as it having a greater representation in contemporary discourse. Sex Addiction has several criteria within the International Classification of Diseases 11th Revision (ICD-11), including the neglecting of one’s healthcare or responsibilities. There are many high-profile examples of sex addiction being blamed for questionable actions, such as American politicians Eliot Spitzer and the unfortunately named Anthony Weiner. Fred said ‘the moral of the story is that men sometimes do very silly things…’. There have, however, been many women who have spoken about their experiences of sex addiction, such as the ‘rush of validation’ Erica Garza (2018) described. Sex addiction is linked to other addictions, such as cocaine and can include “reciprocal relapse” in which a relapse in one can lead to a relapse in the other [https://oxbowacademy.net/educationalarticles/sex_add_signs/]. The Q&A of this lecture covered multiple aspects, including the abused-abuser intergenerational pattern [NB this is small minority], the quality of social connection, and the fact that Iran is the only Muslim country with Sex Addicts Anonymous meetings. This session demonstrated one of the strengths of OUPS by bringing together psychologists from varied backgrounds to provide a broader discussion of psychological phenomena: we may not always agree with each other, but we listen respectfully and raise interesting points and counterpoints.
Our final Saturday lecture was Caught in the Net: is Digital Addiction Real? by Dr Monika McNeill. A topic gaining more and more attention in our technologically mediated contemporary lives. Monika’s lecture included Second Life, Facebook, and phubbing. The time users of Second life devote to their online lives is extraordinary to those who do not participate. Facebook can often be thought of as a double-edged sword through its ability for connection yet isolation due to the heavily curated nature of posts shared. Ditto Instagram: the highlights or presentation of idealised existences. Phubbing is the portmanteau referring to phone snubbing, for example, a group at a restaurant ignoring each other while silently all on their phones. Monika revealed some alarming statistics regarding phone addiction among South Korean young people which have led to treatment facilities offering interventions to addicted youth [https://seoulz.com/smartphone-use-in-korea-is-getting-out-of-hand-and-hurting-koreans/]. During the Q&A, our different demographics led to interesting conversations regarding banning phone use when at grandparents’ homes, a mention of the recent Conservative MP’s inappropriate phone usage #CornHub and, rather brilliantly, the siren song of a rogue mobile: never a dull moment! It certainly makes one look at a smartphone with different eyes… and not just screen-weary, notification-seeking ones!
Do you know what is more peculiar than World Naked Gardening Day coinciding with Young Horticulturalist of the Year? Rocking up to the Radcliffe bar post-lectures and pre-dinner to discover an invasion of Hawaii-shirted, unironic flat-cap wearing blokes, a group of similarly attired women, and some rambunctious yet angel-faced tweens! It was a surprising but enjoyable mix. It turned out they were there for a rugby event, rather than being a spirited crew of horticulturalists! Later in the night, young dancers were at the bar in their emblazoned outfits. The versatility of Radcliffe shone this weekend and was very symbolic of the OU by pure coincidence! Despite these other events being around, we were all perfectly co-existing and had a very enjoyable and eventful quiz.
The Saturday night quiz kicked off at 8 and was hosted by Fred. It was a fun OUPS experience which was all the more special as there was a Graduation celebratory toast for Maud prior to the quiz starting. A lovely reminder of the power of friendships formed at the Open University and OUPS. Congratulations, Maud! Back to the quiz, we were a good mix of teams answering a range of questions. I made a classic, but cringey mistake by answering a question based on a name rather than listening to the whole question first! Considering the DE200 revision/exam weekend too, it was a striking reminder of reading/listening to the whole question first! Also, do not sit beneath the Quizmaster post as it is inexplicably hard to hear – all the lessons learned!
We marked each other’s quizzes and my team ended up marking the winning team: The Inter Nutters! They got 42/48 so well done on a stonking performance! Close behind them were the greatest named team, Fantastic Breasts and Where to Find Them! Regardless of rankings however, it was a lot of fun. There were a couple of lively debates over two questions: a work of fiction and a French language false friend. The former concerned a question about a work of fiction involving Jodie Foster: the correct answer was the Silence of the Lambs, but there were debates for Hannibal to be accepted. The false friend concerned ‘assister’ and its original meaning. Drinks and conversation rounded out Saturday night at/around the bar.
The first lecture Sunday morning was Drug AddictionS: Putting Drugs in Context by Professor Aldo Badiani. The capital S of ‘addictionS’ is deliberate to demonstrate the comorbidity of addiction. Aldo’s was a fascinating session which included noteworthy quotes, including ‘it is better to be approximately right than entirely wrong’, and in reference to the lockdowns as 'the mother of natural experiments’. These are especially interesting because the context of addictive behaviours is a critical aspect. For example, the usage of sedative substances increased during lockdown whereas stimulants decreased. In rat studies, the impact of stimulants has been found to be greater when the substance is administered in a different setting to their home. Alongside context, the issue of definition came to the fore during the Q&A. This is because it is difficult to understand that which is not defined, yet if addiction is defined as a loss of control or an urgent craving, why are there these differences in context found? It was a brilliant lecture which linked themes to the previous lectures and raised many questions which endure beyond the weekend itself. For example, never underestimate the social contextS of addictionS.
Dr Stephen Sharman delivered the penultimate lecture of the weekend, Gambling in the UK. There is a white paper on the subject due to be released this year which is hoped to include changing legislation. Steve spoke about the many different forms of gambling, such as that in betting shops and the Lotto. An interesting aspect of gambling is its language. For example, Steve mentioned ‘players’ and ‘playing’ utilised in advertising rather than ‘gamblers’ and ‘gambling’. The amount of money involved in gambling shocked the room as our estimates were far below the £14.2 billion lost between April 2019 and March 2020. Another shocking aspect is the way that big gambling companies are able to circumvent current advertising-to-children rules because so many Premier League teams are sponsored by these companies therefore their logos are emblazoned all over matches and materials. The incidence of gambling in suicide was discussed as there is increasing attention to this although there is not a simple relationship as the severity of a person’s gambling does not predict if they will attempt suicide. Research continues into gambling and its effects. The Q&A included the algorithms of slot machines and pay rates, which was relevant to an aspect of gambling mentioned earlier in the lecture: how to make losing fun. Gambling is complex and insidious. This was an amazingly detailed lecture and as Steve himself remarked at the beginning, it is important that addictions beyond substances are considered.
The final lecture of the Addiction Conference was The Brain and Addiction by Professor Morten Kringelbach. There were videos of giggling babies, rats licking their lips to sugary water, and an incredible improvement to a young girl’s life following a neurological intervention. The brain is a prediction machine which looks for patterns. There was an extraordinary video in which a patient experiencing depression was connected to electrodes which were making them smile despite their mood not reflecting this expression. It was unnerving! Morten likened an addicted brain to one that runs in circles of seeking but wanting to stop the target. Hallucinogens as an intervention were talked about. During the Q&A, it was asked if the 1960s bad press had stopped psychedelics being used more widely, but abundance does not guarantee quality and so contextual factors were once again relevant. There is variability in how long the effects of how long psychedelics last however, people do not get addicted to them. There was an asymmetry in chronic pain that there is no condition of chronic pleasure, plus those of us suffering from chronic pain can end up with addiction issues due to analgesics and the despair. Indeed, I did not anticipate announcing to the room that ‘I’m not addicted to opiates by the way!’, but c’est la vie! That was, however, not as funny as Morten’s impression of a stuffy English tweed-clad professor, which was frankly iconic.
Once the conference was over, we were heading back home tired but with some great memories! A massive thank you to the lecturers who gave such fabulous sessions and to everyone at OUPS who organised everything!