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Originally published Sunday, June 2, 2013 at 5:40 AM

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‘The Fix’: the engineered temptations of modern life

Damian Thompson’s “The Fix” offers a compelling look at how modern life offers us a host of addictive engineered substances, from muffins at Starbucks to drugs, pornography and online games.

The Washington Post

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‘The Fix: How Addiction is Taking Over Your World’

by Damian Thompson

Collins, 279 pp., $15.99

The subtitle of “The Fix: How Addiction Is Taking Over Your World” sounds like lively hyperbole until you crack the cover of this fleet-footed, frighteningly up-to-date tome on all manner of compulsive habits. But British journalist Damian Thompson backs it up.

He speaks in a voice that’s deceptively casual, disclosing his own demons — from alcohol to zopiclone. You may feel that his take on addiction is superficial and self-centered. But by the end, after you’ve been pulled through a whirlwind of anecdotes, interviews and studies, he has built an argument with real force and substance.

Addiction, as Thompson lays it out, is motivated by two forces: the strong force exerted upon us by the feeling of pleasure (the brain’s opioid system) and the even stronger force exerted by desire (the dopamine system). In the wild, these cravings and mental rewards kept homo sapiens alive in a hostile, mostly barren environment. But under conditions of plenty — or obscene excess — these same brain mechanisms leave us open to being overwhelmed by sugary foods, pornography, drugs, massively multiplayer online role-playing games and, well, you name it. By this way of thinking, all of us are swimming in an ocean of engineered temptations, from the morning muffin at Starbucks to the gardening simulator we play on the Web at work to our nightly prescription for sleeplessness.

While the broad-brush portrayal of modern life as a teeming morass of temptation and compulsion is the book’s strongest (and most disturbing) feature, Thompson also scores some important points against the concept of addiction as disease. Although it’s taken as gospel by many, he claims that the disease model reduces the role of personal choice inherent in the addictive cycle.

Thompson’s argument isn’t likely to be popular, but it’s a far more nuanced look at the mechanics of addiction than we lay readers are usually offered. One could develop a habit of reading material this engaging.

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