London – Why is it that one person can smoke a cigarette occasionally and another will stop only when the pack is in ashes?
Is the brain of a person who plays the odd bingo game different from another who doesn’t leave a slot machine until their paycheque is lost?
These are some of the questions addressed at the inaugural show at the Science Gallery London.
“Hooked: When Want Becomes Need” opens on Friday.
The gallery is part of King’s College London’s outreach programme and the university’s strong scientific research underpins the art.
Tall and lean in his pistachio-green cloak shot through with black waves, Barbadian artist Mark King told me his installation of small, vibrant patterns came from working closely with an addiction expert at King’s.
The project – Look On Me And Be Renewed (on Instagram as @L_O_M_A_B_R) – encourages people to be more aware of their surroundings. People who are addicted to drugs can often think of nothing else but their next fix. When they get a craving psychologists, teach them to slow down, don’t immediately call their drug dealer. Pause look around and consider an alternative course.
The show expands the traditional idea of addiction to include self-harm, screens, social media and consumer behaviour.
The Dutch artist who goes by the name Atelier 010 sculpted a table from white, caster sugar and then doused it in coffee until it collapsed, porcelain teacups clanking to the floor where they shattered and mixed with the crumbled sugar.
“Buyers rush to have cheap consumer stuff. Why is it socially unacceptable not to have the latest phone,” said Atelier 010. “It’s like sugar it leaves you feeling good for a short time.”
Neuroscientist Mitul Mehta was on hand, pouring visitors cups of espresso; some were caffeinated, others de-caff. They’re studying the placebo effect. After 15 minutes, do visitors feel the effects, even if there is no perky chemical.
Mehta said technological advances like detailed scans allow researchers to look at how drugs impact the brain.
“There are impairments in function in people with addiction, so they have impaired executive function that involves planning and thinking carefully about things.
“There are impairments in inhibiting your urges, dysregulation of the reward system and one of the big questions is – is that caused by drug use or was that there before and the answer is both,” Mehta explained.
The King’s College professor told me about a large European study of 14-year-olds. Their brains were scanned before they had any exposure to alcohol.
“They were followed up and then some became heavy alcohol users and some hardly used alcohol,” Mehta said. “Then you could go back in time and see what their brains looked like as adolescents and there were differences. Amazing. “
In the future, doctors may be able to routinely scan a brain and tell the patient if they are more likely to become addicted to a substance or a behaviour.
Brain pictures have also found that even for those with the most entrenched, long-term, deep addictions there is hope.
“There have been some great studies that show under conditions of abstinence … The brain adapts, recovers. Not immediately, but does progressively return to where they were before, to normal if you like,” said John Marsden, King’s College professor of addiction psychology.
The show runs until January 6 and is aimed at 16-25-year olds. Organisers hope they’ll come away with something more than increased knowledge about addiction.
“That is an age that people are making choices about their lives and too often people are ruling out science in their life as a career,” Deborah Bull, King’s College vice president told me.
“We are trying to open up science as a route to young people to study and as a potential career alongside arts and creativity and what’s brilliant here is that it really is a marriage of science and art.”