The Hero and the Cyclops
This article is my interpretation of an archetype-centred view of addiction as espoused by Dr. Jordan Peterson (Figure 01). I have distilled various segments from his lectures, all of which are free on YouTube, where he addresses this topic. If I can recommend but one thing to every person in the world to do, it would be to watch his lectures, I mean really watch them. Though they don’t necessarily always directly deal with drugs or addiction, they provide insights on how to align yourself with truth, as well as how to behave in a mysterious and chaotic world. As such, whatever you do, whatever your vocation, problems, interests, passions, or desires – listen and learn to what this man has to offer. You will emerge a richer and more whole human being.
Figure 01. Jordan B. Peterson, who recently declared on The Joe Rogan Experience podcast that he is “…attempting to resurrect the dormant Logos, I suppose.” Source: Richard Lautens/Toronto Star.
This article draws a parallel between two fields of enquiry in order to better understand how it is that addiction casts such a powerful spell over an individual. No other phenomenon comes to mind that is capable of possessing an individual with such totality that they may, without a moment’s hesitation, ignore every single basic biological imperative just to engage in it. Addicts often neglect their children, do grave physical harm to themselves, and damage their core social bonds just to use drugs which, from an evolutionary point of view, confer no advantage.
The two fields of enquiry we are going to explore in this article could hardly be any different from one another. Yet, just as the ying so snugly hugs the yang, their divergence compliments one another to create a sense of wholeness. That is because, rather than truly opposing one another, they simply use two different sets of epistemological frameworks that broadly mirror one another. They are parallel tracks, heading in the same direction yet anchored in different earth.
The first field of enquiry is neuropsychology, which, as the name suggests, relates thoughts, emotions, and behaviours in terms of brain function. Think of it as the love child of psychology and neuroscience, the latter which has become the standard paradigm to understand natural phenomena in many fields of contemporary scientific inquiry. In its most vulgarized form it considers consciousness as an accidental epiphenomenon of computer-like biochemical transactions unfolding in the brain. Yet, if we approach neuroscience not as the key to understand the meaning of life, but rather as a tool to better elucidate specific and limited aspects of reality, then its true potency shines forth. In my opinion it is unquestionably among the most stunning of human achievements – using the human brain to better understand the most complicated object we are aware of in the Universe, namely the human brain. In terms of addiction, neuropsychology typically frames it as neural changes that occur in three specific regions of the brain (the ventral tegmental area, the nucleus accumbens, and the prefrontal cortex), as well as the actions, and changes in the levels, of certain neurotransmitters, in particular dopamine.
The second field of inquiry is rooted in the mythopoeic worldview, an archaic form of human thought that peers straight into the mysterious abyss of the subconscious mind. It is a complex and nonlinear interpretative system rich in symbols, stories, and myths that speak of our origins, of our relationships to one another and to nature, of our place in the cosmos, and perhaps most importantly – how to act in the world. Though it’s deemed too nebulous by hard scientists to qualify as a legitimate academic endeavour, it has nevertheless been formalized to some extent as a field of study called depth psychology (Figure 02). It is ultimately the primordial puddle of interpretive fabric from which all of our rational thoughts are borne, and interprets addiction not as an aberration of regular neurological functioning, but as a struggle between two eternal archetypes – the hero and the monster.
Figure 02. One of the progenitors of depth psychology, Carl Jung (date unknown). Source: Wikimedia commons.
The brain is a gelatinous mass consisting of billions of neurons, each of which can potentially form a connection with multiple other neurons. Every individual thought or action is reflected in the brain by an unique pattern of connections that are formed between a set of neurons. If this thought or action is oft-repeated, the brain adapts by strengthening the connections constituting the unique pattern in order to enhance the efficiency of future repetitions. And the more the thought or action is performed, the stronger the connections between these neurons become – that’s what is meant by the popular neuroscientific dictum, “neurons that fire together, wire together”.
In the most elementary sense, this is what addiction is – a pattern of specific neurons that become strongly wired because the behaviour is repeated. But unlike most other “regular” actions, for instance reading a book or tossing a ball around, this specific pattern of neurons that are firing is self-perpetuating because it gives the individual a strong sense of pleasure and well-being when it is performed. This is because the act of using drugs is biochemically underpinned by the release of dopamine in the brain’s reward pathway (Figure 03). So once the pattern of neurons representing the addiction fire, they provide a powerful incentive for the individual to repeat the action, and with every repetition the connection becomes stronger, which further reinforces the desire to repeat it.
Figure 03. The reward pathway consists of dopaminergic neurons that connect the ventral tegmental area (VTA) with the nucleus accumbens and prefrontal cortex. Source: Wikimedia commons.
The unique pattern of connected neurons that forms is directed towards a very narrow outcome – obtaining, preparing, and consuming chemical inebriants. As mentioned, the more the addictive behaviour is repeated, the stronger the connections between the neurons become. This not only makes the urge to repeat the behaviour stronger, but critically also makes it harder to abstain from performing it. Thus every time an individual indulges in their addiction, it makes it more tempting to repeat and a little harder to stop.
One of depth psychology’s other forebears, Sigmund Freud, popularized the idea that it is the unconscious mind that drives our thoughts and actions, which are thus not under our voluntary control. Further, the unconscious mind is seen as a plurality of living subpersonalities, each with their own accompanying agendas, perceptions, and emotions. These subpersonalities compete with another so as to become the dominant, and thus expressed, personality at any given instance. Think of yourself as a symphony of subpersonalities, a collection of various psychological sounds and melodies differentially expressed over time, which combine uniquely in each moment to manifest the distinct “you” that interacts with the rest of the world.
When you use an addictive substances and develop a dependence, you spawn a new one of these subpersonalities. In Western mythology this new subpersonality is represented as the “one-eyed monster”, also known as the cyclops (Figure 04). A monster solely concerned with sensory gratification, the cyclops has one eye in the centre of its head representing its fixation on the narrow outcome of obtaining, preparing, and consuming its substance of choice. Lacking a second eye means it has no depth perception – it seeks out whatever it is fixated on without considering the consequences. Whenever the cyclops succeeds in its quest it becomes stronger, and thus not only more likely to repeat the behaviour, but less likely to be able to abstain from doing so in the future. Sounds familiar yet?
Figure 04. The Cyclops (1914) by Odilon Redon. Source: Wikimedia commons.
How to Defeat the Cyclops
One cannot defeat the cyclops by banishing it from the realm of your mind. That’s because once it has entered your domain, it will never completely leave. When one forms a new pattern of connected neurons, that pattern can never be completely erased. Sure, one can abstain from ever repeating it, but even in that case the specific panoply of connections will simply become very weak, yet remnants of its presence will remain indefinitely. So then how does one conquer the cyclops, how does one overcome the addiction? To defeat the monster one needs to spawn a new subpersonality that is capable of subjugating it into dormancy, in other words one needs to summon a hero (Figure 05).
Figure 05. The hero Odysseus in battle with the mighty cyclops Polyphemus. Source: Arnold Bӧcklin via Wikimedia commons.
Just as the cyclops was the neurological manifestation of a novel pattern of connected neurons representing the addictive behaviour, so the hero also represents a new pattern of connected neurons. This new hero pattern reflects any set of thoughts and actions the individual adopts that allows them to transcend their addiction. Which specific thought or action that is depends on the individual and what empowers them to overcome the addiction. For some it might be a new belief system, joining group therapy, having a child, growing older, accepting other responsibilities, a new partner, a powerful psychedelic insight or religious experience et cetera. It is usually some catalytic event that leads to the adoption of a new relationship towards the addiction, as well as behaviours underpinned by a set of beliefs and motivations that empowers the individual to remain abstinent.
Once the hero is birthed and pitted against the cyclops, a battle ensues between them. When the urge to engage in the addiction manifests, it is the cyclops attacking. If the individual abstains, the hero has won and it becomes a little stronger and thus more likely to win the subsequent engagement; if the individual uses, then it is the monster that becomes a little stronger and thus more likely to win the subsequent engagement. This is the indefinite tug of war of will between the hero and the monster, and it is up to the individual to do everything in their conscious ability to stack the odds in the hero’s favour. I believe this is what Dr. Peterson meant when he said in one of his lectures: “Do not practice that which you do not wish to become.” And of course, the inverse is also true: practice that which you do wish to become.
Chaos and the Danger of Relapse
In Homer’s Odyssey, the hero Odysseus and the cyclops Polyphemus inhabit different lands – the monster lives in a cave on an uninhabited island whereas Odysseus hails from the kingdom of Ithaca. I mentioned earlier that the neural pattern that reflects the addictive behaviour is located in an area of the brain called the reward circuit. This area is located in the centre of the brain (the cave), which is considered to be the brain’s most primitive area. Often called the “reptilian brain”, it represents our primal urges related to basic survival. In the addict it mediates some of the typical irrational thoughts and behaviours – wanting, needing, craving, and the drive to derive sensory satisfaction no matter the costs.
The hero, on the other hand, is a civilized and learned scholar hailing from the land of culture. It is represented by the part of the brain known as the prefrontal cortex that is unique to humans. It is the part of the brain that allows abstract thought, such as taking future consequences into consideration before settling on a desired course of action. It is the seat of reason that is responsible for impulse control, it is what makes humans able to sacrifice immediate pleasure for the sake of a perceived future benefit. When the monster says: “I want to consume the drug in order to feel good right now”, the hero responds: “Even though consuming the drug may bring me some ephemeral pleasure, it will soon pass and I will bear negative consequences for using it. There are other things in my life that are more important, and it is worth sacrificing this to serve them so I may ultimately have a more happy and fulfilling life.”
It’s important to take note that these two beings inhabit different areas of the brain because your state of mind may favour one area over the other and thus differentially empowers either the hero or the monster. When one is calm and relaxed the prefrontal cortex, that is the higher-order cognition represented by the hero, is fully engaged, which facilitates the will to abstain. Conversely, if one experiences a major stressor it typically activates what is commonly know as the “fight or flight” response. This is a physiological state that developed during our evolutionary history when we were still primarily prey animals in order to help us respond to impending dangers. When the “fight or flight” response is activated it leads to an inhibition of the higher-order cognition (the hero) and fully activates the more primitive part of the brain (the monster).
Many of us have experienced this – when shit hits the fan people tend to act in a more irrational and uncivilized manner. They may become hyperemotional, perhaps even aggressive, and they typically behave in an impulsive manner which they regret later once higher-order cognition is restored. A person can be sober for years and never be tempted to use, and then one day some chaotic event which turns their world upside-down – for instance a loved one dying, a spouse cheating, a loss of a job – may stress them to such a degree that they relapse.
It is important for anyone dealing with addiction to be aware of this. When a stress-inducing event occurs, which it inevitably will because, well, such is life; a sudden urge to use will likely result. But this urge is not permanent, it is a function of the stressful event itself, and once it passes and is psychologically processed your hero will rise again fully to subdue the monster. And the mere act of abstaining when such an event took place will strengthen your hero, strengthen your resolve, and will make you more resilient in the face of future chaos.
Can the Monster Serve the Individual?
In the world of archetypes it is recognized that any archetype has both a positive and a negative side. Like two sides of the same coin, one is constructive (for instance the benevolent king), and the other destructive (for instance the malevolent dictator). Based on this, the question typically arises: does the monster, a tenacious, short-sighted, subpersonality have a positive side which could potentially serve the individual? There are a number of conceivable scenarios where such rabid commitment and narrow focus towards a singular pursuit may hypothetically be useful. The most obvious examples are when the behaviour is directed towards positive outcomes – such as success in one’s career by working hard, or taking control of one’s health by following a stringent diet and exercise regime. Both of these pursuits require dedication, perseverance, and resilience, all of which could potentially be co-opted from the one-eyed monster’s nature.
But again, even if whatever outcome is being served by such a relentless pursuit is considered “desirable” according to our collective value system, there is still a danger because a positive can quickly become a negative if not kept in check. People can become addicted to exercise, and even narcissistically obsessed with their physique so that social bonds suffer. And many people may advance in their career and become objectively successful and wealthy, yet may continue to mindlessly embody a “more is better” mentality while their physical and mental health suffers due to the high stress load. Like almost everything in life, it is a balance, a delicate dance between one’s hero and the one-eyed monster, that can produce the best outcome. Make make sure that the hero leads the dance, holds its hand high, look where its heading, and doesn’t let the monster step on its foot – remember, it does lack depth perception after all.