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How Movies Help People Build Better Thought Experiments to Avoid or Overcome Addiction

Thought experiments are a ubiquitous and vital part of human life that continually unspool in our brains, usually in the background, often without us even realizing they’re happening. From the moment we wake up to the moment we fall asleep, our prefrontal cortex is hard at work modeling potential outcomes, visualizing the risk/return profile of taking one action over another, or taking no action at all. It’s almost like we’re playing little what-if movies in our heads. All day. Every day. 

All scientific inventions and acts of artistic, cultural, political and social creation began as human what-if thought experiments. Einstein came up with Special Relativity by asking what the world would look like to him if he were a beam of light. English physician Edward Jenner wondered what would happen to a young boy if he was intentionally infected with Cowpox. Answer: Immunity from Smallpox and the development of vaccines ("vacca" is Latin for cow). Democracy and human rights started as thought experiments in Greece and Persia, respectively.


Thought experiments help us navigate successfully through life, but they can also be harmful if used in excess. Constant rumination over possible outcomes of actions or inactions is called “worrying,” and anyone suffering from anxiety and depression will tell you their kind of worrying is not fun. One of the main goals of meditation is to help people become aware of–and try to quell–all the thought experiments bouncing around in their heads. Many people use drugs and alcohol for the same purpose. And of course, this may lead to addiction. 


Individuals at any stage of their addiction and recovery lifecycle are constantly engaging in what-if thought experiments of the likely Benefits and Costs of either a) starting to use, or b) continuing to use, of c) stopping their use, or d) resuming their use after a period of abstinence. These thought experiments are backed up by visualizations of what those pros and cons would look like in real life if they actually occurred. It sounds simple on paper, but when it comes to addiction, we realize that some thought experiments are better than others.


And that’s because most thought experiments are only as good as the visualization skills of the individual who’s running them (aka their “imagination”). And the quality of their visualizations is mediated by where they find themselves in the addiction and recovery lifecycle, their age, their lived and learned experiences, their cognitive biases, predilection towards magical thinking, and a host of other factors like past trauma, genetics, etc. Great visualization isn’t easy.  Why else would people watch porn?

Let’s consider a scenario where a teenager is invited to try alcohol for the first time by their super-cool friends. How good of a Cost-Benefit thought experiment can they visualize to help guide that potentially life-altering decision? Years of alcohol advertising and the sight of their cool friends having a blast with booze makes it really easy to visualize similar Benefits if they drink too. They're risk-welcoming pleasure-seekers by nature, and notoriously bad with impulse control because their prefrontal cortexes are only half-baked. The Benefits look really good to them.

But on the Costs side of the equation, unless they’ve binge-watched all five seasons of INTERVENTION, the teenager probably hasn’t seen enough images of–or had direct experiences with–sickening hangovers, scary blackouts, arrest–and all the other wonderful perks of alcohol addiction that would inspire them to “just say no.” In other words, they just can’t imagine what they might be in for. As a result, their thought experiments are really lopsided in favor of the Benefits, and likely ineffective at stopping them from just saying yes.

Individuals who are further along in their addiction lifecycle (young adults, for instance) are certainly more mature, but they’re also pretty bad at generating useful thought experiments. They're fully aware of the Benefits (great social life, fun work parties), but they also have some first-hand experience of the Costs of their use behaviors. Maybe their first DUI, a pink slip at work, or a breakup. Problem is, individuals at this stage of their addiction lifecycle have heavily defended egos, and are awash in cognitive biases, magical thinking, and outright denialism.


For instance, a young party animal and future liver transplant recipient will ignore alcohol’s proven link to multiple fatal diseases, and instead fall prey to Confirmation Bias by cherry-picking quasi-scientific “studies” and internet memes that tout the health "benefits" of daily alcohol consumption (aka the “French Model”). Voila! Drinking is good for me!  Magical thinking will lead them to conclude that “getting one DUI doesn’t mean I have a problem.” Outright denialism kicks in next as use-related consequences pile up. Result: Corrupted visualizations leading to unhelpful thought experiments that fail to adequately inform better decision-making.


People who have been through treatment or found sobriety on their own can create much better thought experiments because they’ve experienced many of the Costs directly in the form of actual health problems, multiple job losses, and ruined marriages. If they are tempted to relapse, their thought experiments are richly detailed and compelling. Many people in recovery call this kind of Cost-Benefit visualization “playing the tape”. They don’t have to struggle to conjure up a visualization of what would happen if they relapse. They can envision exactly what will happen. 


But even if they haven’t directly experienced all consequences for themselves, they’ve probably attended enough mutual support meetings where participants and speakers shared their graphic stories. This is why group “shares” and “testimonials” are such a powerful component of the recovery experience. The tradition goes back more than 150 years (read a wonderful history of recovery movements in SLAYING THE DRAGON by William White). Result: Individuals at this stage of their addiction lifecycle have better odds of success at long-term recovery because their thought experiments are vivid, unbiased, and grounded in powerful learned, listened and lived experience.

Okay, so where do movies fit into all of this?  Well, movies are really just slickly-produced representations of life. They’re elaborate two hour what-if thought experiments. If a person can’t adequately visualize the costs and benefits of alcohol and/or substance use because of immaturity or bias, movies can help with a lot of the heavy lifting. The RECOVERY MOVIE MEET-UPs Program is founded on the premise that movies, by assisting in visualization, can positively affect a person’s decision-making at whatever stage of their addiction and recovery lifecycle. 


So let’s go back to the  teenager who is offered their first drink (or drug). They’re asking themselves, “what bad stuff will happen to me if I do this?” Again, the problem is, they can’t imagine the potential consequences of their decision. They simply don’t have enough knowledge or experience to visualize the Costs as clearly as they do the Benefits. 

A potential Cost (for young women in particular) is a total blackout after binge-drinking and/or taking drugs at a party. About 43% of sexual assaults involve alcohol use by the victim. Are there any visual or experiential reference points that a young woman can access to build a good what-if thought experiment before venturing out to her first frat party? Probably not. If she had experienced blackout date rape before, chances are she would not wish a repeat of the experience. But for a young woman who (luckily) hasn’t been raped while she’s high, there are several feature and made-for-TV films that visually convey what this terrible experience may look like. First among them is THE ACCUSED, starring Jody Foster. A particularly powerful representation of a scary blackout can also be found in the movie SMASHED, where a straight-laced female school teacher wakes up in a seedy back alley with no recollection of what happened the night before, or even where she is. 

Another of the Costs a teen or young adult should seriously consider is the potential for withdrawal. Are there any visual reference points to this decidedly unpleasant experience they can access to build a decent thought experiment? Probably not. But there are plenty in movies that can help. The groundbreaking Scottish film TRAINSPOTTING features a visual representation of a young man’s heroin withdrawal that is not just harrowing, it’s downright terrifying. Similarly, FOUR GOOD DAYS shows a young woman curled up into a ball, trembling outside of her mothers door, begging for money to buy a hit. Later her suffering continues at a detox ward. 

Another potential Cost that teenagers or young adults likely fail to envision is getting addicted and then having to prostitute themselves to feed their habit. Unless they suffered sexual abuse themselves, a majority of individuals at an early stage of their addiction lifecycle can’t visualize what it feels like to be sexually molested by an adult they find physically repulsive. What’s more, they don’t want to visualize it. Nobody does.  But shouldn't they?


Yes. And once again movies can really help. In the movie BEN IS BACK, viewers can get a glimpse at what such an unpleasant what-if looks like. It’s revealed in a scene that Ben, a young male heroin addict now trying to recover, once traded sexual favors for money with one of his (male) high school teachers. There is no physical contact in the scene at all. Just enough details are implied through dialogue. Which makes this movie representation all the more powerful. It's a necessary hard truth told very gently.

There are other more severe visualization options available. Watch the ending of the film REQUIEM FOR A DREAM with Jennifer Connelley, and you’ll know exactly what I mean. The visuals served up in this film are more jarring than the worst thought experiment any young person could ever conjure up on their own. The film FOUR GOOD DAYS features a scene where a mother (Glenn Close) searches for her daughter (Mila Kunis) in a dark, dingy heroin shooting gallery and instead finds a teenage girl who is so high she doesn't even realize she's being raped.

Great (albeit sometimes brutal) visual references like these, applied in thought experiments undertaken at this early stage of a young person’s addiction lifecycle, might just stop them from taking that first drink or hit and entering the addiction lifecycle to begin with. And ultimately isn't it far less risky for impressionable youth to internalize these hard lessons vicariously with the help of movies than to experience these harsh realities for themselves? 

(CLICK HERE for more useful thought experiments for teens and young adults)

Films can also help bolster the thought experiments of older individuals who are using regularly, have become addicted, but have not yet acknowledged that they have a problem. Their Cost-Benefit thought experiments are likely clouded by the analgesic effects of their DOCs. In fact, as mentioned above, they may be taking drugs or alcohol in order to stop any thought experiments from bouncing around in their brains to begin with. Throw in cognitive biases and magical thinking, and it’s no wonder that 90% of people who need help don’t get it. They’re resistant.

But by throwing movies into the mix, there’s a non-intrusive, non-confrontational way to overcome this resistance by helping them generate better thought experiments. Thought experiments like “what will happen if I continue using like I am now?” Well, movies like LEAVING LAS VEGAS can show them that even professionally successful individuals like Ben Sanderson (played by Nicolas Cage, who won an Oscar for his portrayal) can venture down a dark path and never come back. In A STAR IS BORN, we see that even (and especially) people who have achieved fame and fortune can follow down the same road. Telling an addicted individual that they’re going to die if they keep using is probably an unhelpful scare tactic. Having them experience a visualization of what this cold calculus looks like in a film could be way more helpful.


Another point in the addiction lifecycle where movies can help is that point when individuals have acknowledged that they have a problem and are considering getting help.  “What would it be like if I went to rehab?” they probably ask themselves. Are there any visual and experiential reference points these individuals can access to create compelling thought experiments that help them decide?


Well, unless they’ve already been to rehab before or watched every episode of Celebrity Rehab, probably very few. That’s why movies like 28 DAYS and CLEAN & SOBER are so helpful at this stage of the lifestyle, and are two of the most important movies featured in the RECOVERY MOVIE MEET-UPS Program. Each film may vary in their aesthetics and tone, but both are crucial visualizations of what treatment can look like, and how effective it can be.  I’ve called 28 DAYS specifically “the best goodwill ambassador that the rehab industry ever had.” But far beyond positive portrayals of recovery in action, both films help people visualize how if they take the process seriously, then it can work. 

Thought experiments don’t stop once individuals are in active recovery; they actually become more frequent and complex. As we all know, challenges to sobriety abound. A spouse or partner may still be in active addiction, with no plans to stop. Or they may have gone to rehab but returned home a changed person. They may now be the parent of children with their own addiction problems. These are very powerful stressors that can increase the chances of relapse. 

Movies can play a very important role at this stage as well. Films like DAYS OF WINE AND ROSES visualize the challenges faced by a husband (Jack Lemmon) whose relationship with his wife (Lee Remick) was completely predicated on them drinking together. He stops; she doesn’t. She doesn’t want to stop. And he can’t force her. This kind of scenario plays itself out all over the world all the time, and a sober individual’s love for their spouse or partner (or the desire to please them) may lead them to relapse. Envisioning this dynamic play itself out in a movie may help couples and parents better prepare for these potential conflicts if they arise in real life.

Similarly, WHEN A MAN LOVES A WOMAN dramatizes what can happen to a marriage when one partner (in this case Meg Ryan) returns from rehab and realizes that her husband (Andy Garcia) was an enabling  factor in her addiction to alcohol, and now a threat to her sobriety. Either party in a relationship (but ideally both) can leverage the visual and thematic power of this movie to inform how they mentally process and prepare for a similar challenge to their own marriage. 

There are many more great movies about addiction and recovery included in the RECOVERY MOVIE MEET-UPs Program that we could discuss as tools to help visualization in countless thought experiments for anybody at any stage of their addiction and recovery lifecycle. Not all the movies are Oscar-worthy, but each can help in their own unique ways. And never underestimate the power of good visualizations on better decision-making. A single image of a naked girl fleeing her incinerated village changed the minds of millions of Americans about the Vietnam War overnight. All complex human endeavors require great thought experiments to succeed. Successful avoidance of–and  recovery from–any addiction is no different.   

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