Addiction and the Neuralized Imagination

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We take addiction for granted, as we do the hundreds of little facts each of us knows about it. But until the late nineteenth century addiction existed in such different versions from ours’ that we would hardly recognize the concept today. Until the early nineteenth century, addiction was configured as compulsion: especially the behaviour of acting out bad habits.

Compulsion too is a category we think we understand today, even in its popularized versions. But before approximately 1860 it was a confused category, the only agreement among those philosophizing about it that the nervous system was fundamental to its  operations. Compulsion had been neuralized in the late eighteenth century – the reason it was then such an intriguing behavior to scientists, doctors, and writers. However, before its neuralization around 1780, compulsion was a black hole of human behavior, often  thought to be occasionally lorded over by supernatural interference. Once neuralized it lost some of its mystery, as for the large number of  ‘eaters’ (as compulsives were then called) compelled to chew tobacco, imbibe narcotics, and drink barrels of alcohol. Thomas De Quincey’s Opium Eater (1821) is a good example.

By the late eighteenth century some philosophers and scientists recognized that imagination, or the imagination, played a major role in compulsive behavior. The obviously compulsive addict both recognized and then remembered the blissful ecstasy experienced while under the effect of the substance. Memory and imagination were central to the process – without this recall the body would not remember its transformed state under the influence of the drug. Memory had been neuralized before imagination was; or, at least they were neuralized concomitantly. Without such neuralization the addiction diagnosis could never have have become what it was in the run-up to Freud and psychoanalysis.