The brain plays a central role in both active addiction and recovery. Brain imaging studies as reported by the US National Institute on Drug Abuse (NIDA) demonstrate that physical changes take place in areas of the brains of drug addicted individuals that affect learning, decision making, judgment, memory, and behavior control. These brain changes can be long lasting, but most are neither permanent nor irreversible. Until relatively recently, a prevailing scientific belief was that the structure of the human brain is set hard-and-fast in early childhood with all the neurons it will ever have. It was accepted as fact that no new neurons are added—ever, and that what is there is as good as it’s ever going to get. According to this paradigm, the only possible changes in brain structure and functioning were negative—involving the loss of neurons and functioning due to traumatic injury, neurological illness, such as stroke or dementia, damage due to addiction, or the natural inevitable effects of aging. It is now widely recognized that the brain has the ability to change and adapt throughout a person’s life. This ability, known as neuroplasticity, allows the brain’s structure and functioning to change in response to external stimuli, experience, and activity. Through the processes of thinking, learning, and acting, the brain continuously lays down new pathways for the processing and communicating of information and reorganizes existing ones. The human brain adapts to repetitive experiences by forming memory connections or tracks. These connections are created by changes in brain structure and functioning, and work in the brain’s operating system—outside of conscious awareness. When repeated consistently over time, any activity, behavior, or experience—whether healthy and positive or unhealthy and destructive—can create new unconscious memory tracks. The formation of these memory tracks in the brain and body is what eventually allows activities to be performed without conscious thought or effort. This process is not unlike the grading and paving of a roadway that allows traffic to travel easily and efficiently. In the brain, over time the repetition of an activity can turn a dirt road into a freeway. The brain changes both physically and functionally as connections between neurons are generated, rewired, and/or refined. It is the brain’s capacity to make these changes that gives us the ability to memorize new facts, form new memories, adjust to new experiences and environments, integrate new learning, and develop new skills. The memory tracks that are created through repetitive experiences serve to deepen learning and strengthen mental, emotional, and muscle memory. Habits, those patterns of behavior that develop through repetition, are the cause, as well as the result of these kinds of changes in the brain. Repetitive substance use creates new neural pathways and unconscious memory tracks. Similarly, because the nature of chronic pain is that it is an all-too repetitive experience, it also generates unconscious memory tracks. This blog post is an excerpt from Some Assembly Required – A Balanced Approach to Recovery from Addiction and Chronic Pain by By Dan Mager, MSW; Published by Central Recovery Press (CRP).