The Cult of Celebrity – This Millennium’s Addiction

Author Jake Hapern - CTV.caAn excerpt from “Fame Junkies” by Jake Halpern
02/19/2007 (rushprnews) – Anyone who has ever been in the limelight, even for participating in a high school musical or telling a good story at a cocktail party, can attest to the fact that there is a rush that comes with commanding everyone’s attention. Isn’t it possible that this feeling is, in fact, addictive? Isn’t it possible that many behaviors related to fame – including becoming famous, being near the famous, and even reading about the famous – trigger a rush, a high, or even a numbing effect that is potentially addictive?


In search of answers, I paid a visit to Dr. Hans Breiter at Massachusetts General Hospital in Boston. Dr. Breiter is large teddy bear of a man, well over six feet tall, but with soft facial features and a neatly trimmed red beard. He is one of the nation’s top experts on the neurological underpinnings of addiction and he spends most of his days working in a laboratory that is equipped with several giant MRI machines. Typically the magnetic fields generated by MRI machines vary in strength by a measure called “teslas” and you can actually feel the difference between the various machines. When you approach the lab’s most powerful 7-tesla MRI machine, for example, you’ll sense a slight pull on your feet. This is because there are innumerable microscopic pieces of metal embedded in your shoes that are gravitating toward the machine’s magnet. When I visited the lab, Dr. Breiter was guiding a subject into a 3-tesla MRI machine. Once the subject slid into this device, he was asked to play a “game of chance,” in which he observed a small computer screen that showed a spinning roulette wheel. Every time the wheel stopped spinning, the monitor informed the subject how much money he had just won or lost.

This was “real money,” Dr. Breiter explained, because at the end of the experiment subjects were allowed to keep their winnings. As this experiment continued, Dr. Breiter and his colleagues huddled around a small computer screen to see how the subject’s brain was reacting to his wins and losses.

Within the last several years, Dr. Breiter has gained a great deal of attention for his research on how our brains react both to “games of chance” and to cocaine use. (He has done another experiment, similar to the one I witnessed, in which he gives subjects intravenous infusions of cocaine while they are inside an MRI machine.) Dr. Breiter has demonstrated that both activities affect an area of the brain known as the “reward-aversion system.” Basically, whenever you feel a rush of pleasure or of pain, that feeling originates from this system. Ever since the dawn of man, the reward-aversion system has played a key role in human evolution. It punishes us with pain when we harm ourselves and it rewards us with pleasure when we do things that help us survive and reproduce like eating and having sex. In addicts, this delicate system essentially starts to malfunction. Cocaine users tamper with their reward-aversions system by artificially inducing feelings of euphoria, and they ultimately succeed in changing the chemistry of their brains so that they crave more and more of the drug in order to feel good.

Dr. Breiter speculated that a similar thing might occur with gambling. He tested this idea in relatively simple fashion. When his subjects were in the MRI machine, either gambling or high on cocaine, he asked them to rate how they were feeling. In both cases, he found that identical parts of the brain “lit up” when gamblers and cocaine-users indicated that they were feeling very good. In fact, during these times, the MRI scans were so similar-looking that he could not tell them apart. These studies do not prove that gambling is as addictive as using cocaine, but they do suggest that both activities appear to affect the brain circuitry in a remarkably similar fashion.

Although this field of research is still in its infancy, Dr. Breiter and others have shown that similar results occur when people eat chocolate, view arousing nude pictures, or even play video games. All of these activities prompt the brain to release a variety of chemicals or neurotransmitters, including dopamine and endogenous opiates, which ultimately make us feel good. This phenomenon has led some scientists to observe that the brain is, essentially, a “giant pharmaceutical factory that manufactures powerful, mind-altering chemicals.” Over time, many of us find ourselves craving the activities that trigger these chemical releases. In order to get a fix, we feel driven to eat chocolate constantly or bet $1,000 on a Yankees game again and again and again. Indeed, scientists now believe that there may be a whole range of activities that can, over time, change the chemistry of the some people’s brains and create internal chemical dependencies. One addict’s craving for gambling or eating chocolate may be physiologically every bit as real as another’s craving for heroin or nicotine.

Of course, from time to time, we all gamble, or get drunk, or eat too much chocolate, but what scientists still don’t know is why certain people become addicted to these behaviors. According to Dr. Alan Marlatt, who runs the Addictive Behaviors Research Center at the University of Washington, most addicts are essentially looking for a way to “self-medicate.” “It is rare to find an addict who is feeling good and just wants to feel a bit better or more euphoric,” Dr. Marlatt told me. “Far more often, addicts are trying to escape a low of depression or anxiety.” Many clinicians also believe that addicts are looking to exert control over their lives. Craig Nakken, an author and addiction specialist, argues that when happiness eludes us – and we fall into despair – some of us resort to addictive behaviors that temporarily get us high, change our moods, and offer us relief.

The food addict might have a fight with his spouse and then consume several cartons of ice cream. For a moment, instead of feeling depressed and empty, the food addict feels both emotionally and physically full. Again, we all engage in such escapism from time to time, but with addicts these behaviors spiral out of control. True addicts get locked into a destructive cycle in which they come to depend on an activity or a substance for pleasure and comfort. Gradually, the addict’s set of priorities – or “value hierarchy” – begins to change as the addiction itself becomes more important than other values like work, friends, or family. Eventually, even if addicts desperately want to quit, they find it very difficult to do so.

Dr. Nora Volkow, who is the director of the National Institute for Drug Abuse, says that there are two things that define addiction – whether a person can bring himself or herself to quit and how well he or she functions in society. For example, you couldn’t say that Bill Gates is “addicted” to making money or being famous because his desire for these things doesn’t appear to debilitate him as a CEO or as a figure in his family. “But if Bill Gates was compulsive about making money or getting fame at the cost of his integrity, his family, or his health – and he couldn’t quit despite wanting to do so – that could be described as an addiction,” Dr. Volkow told me.

In general, the notion that people can become addicted to a whole range of substances and activities is gaining credibility not just with clinicians and scientists, but with the public as well. Over the last several decades, there has been an emergence of numerous 12-step recovery groups including “Alcoholics Anonymous” (founded in 1935), “Narcotics Anonymous” (circa 1950), “Gamblers Anonymous” (1957), “Overeaters Anonymous” (1960), “Debtors Anonymous” (1968), “Sex Addicts Anonymous” (1977), “Clutterers Anonymous” (1989), “Shoplifters Anonymous” (1992), “On-Line Gamers Anonymous” (2002) and the list goes on.

As far as I know, there are no support groups that cater to any of the celebrity-obsessed niches that I explored. There is no “Attention Seekers Anonymous,” or “Celebrity Sidekicks Anonymous,” or “Diehard Fans Anonymous.” This may seem like a silly notion, but is it? If people are getting hooked on the rush of shoplifting or playing video games, isn’t it possible that others are getting high either by fawning over celebrities or, better yet, by joining their entourages and riding with them in their limos? Isn’t it even more likely that a select few are getting high by receiving massive amounts of attention from hordes of cheering fans? Don’t all of these activities offer at least a bit of euphoria and a certain degree of transcendence or escapism? So why couldn’t they be addictive?

The final and perhaps most important issue to consider is availability. Many healthcare experts, including those at the National Institute of Health, believe that one of the biggest causes of alcoholism may be how readily available it is. Similarly, there is a growing belief that gambling addictions are on the rise, in large part, because of the spread of casinos. Craig Nakken notes, “The more available addictive objects and events are, the greater the number of people who form addictive relationships with them.” So wouldn’t all of this apply to fame? If cable television and reality TV has helped increase the availability of fame, and if fame itself is addictive, might this explain why so many people are pining for it? And couldn’t the same logic apply to celebrity-watching? If celebrity tabloids and TV shows are so available, and perhaps even mildly addictive, might this not explain why we can never get enough of them? In the final analysis, could many of us be suffering from a widespread and insidious addiction that no one has ever bothered to diagnose?

Copyright © 2007 by Jake Halpern. Reprinted by permission of Houghton Mifflin Company.
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Anne Howard
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