Neural Ghosts

When I first came into recovery I always noticed that when I felt bad about myself it was often accompanied by the thought of a drink?

I always thought this curious. I would be feeling negative, self loathing, in shame or guilt about some past behaviour and all of a sudden my brain would go “to hell with this, let’s go for a drink!?”

Initially I thought well I guess I drank on negative emotions quite a lot when I looked back. I drank  when I felt bad about myself all the time. I rarely drank when I felt good about myself as I rarely felt good about myself?

So in some way this feeling bad about myself and drinking must have been forged together somehow in my brain. In other words, I must have felt negative about myself and the urge to drink to not feel bad about myself must have simply  accompanied this feeling until it become a habitualised response –  feel bad, thought of drink; a sort of internal stimulus/response.

It was like alcohol had taken over the job of regulating/controlling/dealing with my negative emotions about myself.

I feel now that I probably found alcohol extra stimulating when I first drank because not only did it appear to make me feel great, it also relieved me of negative emotions and anxiety, right from the start of my drinking in fact.

This is a negative self perception that became  entwined with an alcohol use schema. Feel bad drink, repeat.

So in early recovery and before I did the 12 steps which removed many of these feelings of uselessness, worthlessness and negative self perception I would be caught up in this response of feel bad about myself, thought of a drink!

The thing is when I thought of a drink it wasn’t of the last time I drank. I didn’t think of the violent shakes, the vomiting, the DTs, hallucinations.

No, I thought of sunny lit bars, with sexy barmaids, and people drinking, laughing and having fun.  Music playing, people dancing etc. It had been some years since this had been my drinking experience but this facsimile in my head of what a drink looked and felt like would play like a film across my mind.

Then one year in recovery I came across a study which looked at euphoric recall – i.e. this feeling of elation around memories of drinking which kinda delude you into thinking that drinking would a a great idea while simultaneously ignoring the last years of alcoholic hell when drinking wasn’t much fun to put it mildly.

Some people say euphoric recall is a memory or a feeling reactivated in your brain somehow and may be the feeling alcohol or drugs gave you when they were still euphoria  inducing, how they used to make you feel way back in the day when you enjoyed drinking and drugging.

It is a weird thing euphoric recall – it is like a neural ghost, embedded in the brain.

It has accounted for many alcoholics relapsing, thinking that drinking will be like the good old days to find it returns them to a living hell, worse than the last hell they dragged themselves out of.

So this euphoric recall is like a siren calling you to the jagged rocks of elapse, it is essentially a deluded message your brain sends you that has nothing to do with the last years of your drinking.

So why does it occur?

I partly reconciled the bit in the Big Book of Alcoholics Anonymous where it says alcohol is “cunning, baffling, powerful” in reference to an  an article I read a while back by Rex Cannon(1).

His observations about a possible role for negative self perception in relapse was based on a study he conducted  on recovering alcoholics.

It found that by measuring their brain frequencies, when thinking about drinking and when in a negative self perception that there was a change in the frequency of their brain waves.

In both cases, thinking about drinking and also when in a state of negative self perception, created a widespread alpha power increase in brain frequency in the frontal part of the brain the prefrontal cortex, commonly seen by use of certain chemicals.

So this frequency was also present and in the same areas of a common neural circuitry  during alcoholics’ reports of ‘using’ and ‘drinking’ thought patterns as well as in negative self perception.

So thinking about drinking provokes a similar brain frequency as drinking which is also quite similar to being in a negative self perception.

In terms of the alcoholic brain being out of balance in terms of neurochemicals, which it is, this is like negative emotions/distress prompting a need  to  restore balance in a way it used to temporarily, i.e. by drinking.

To the alcoholic brain this is how we survived before, when we felt we had to  rink to restore a transient “balance or homeostasis” which relieved our negative emotions.

Obviously  these negative emotions were soon be replaced by chronic drinking and the cycle of trying to correct an out of balance brain got worse with the brain becoming more and more out of balance via more and more chronic drinking.

The author suggest that “‘using’ and ‘drinking’ thought patterns as well as in negative self perception which appeared to bring the brain into synchrony, if only for a brief period of time, was the euphoria addicted individuals speak so fondly of and one possible reason for difficulty in treating alcoholism.

It is as if this euphoric recall  “lives” like a neural ghost in our brain networks, ready to haunt us when we are feeling negative emotionally or distressed.

He also suggested that “if the brain communicates and orchestrates the affective (emotional) state of the individual in response to contents and images relating to self and self-in-experience – it is plausible that a large scale feedback loop is formed involving not only perceptual processes but relative automatic functioning.

“This process reinforces the addicted person to become habituated to an aroused cortical state (i.e. increased alpha/beta activity) and when there is a shift to ‘normalcy’ (or recovery/sobriety) it is errantly perceived as abnormal thereby increasing the desire or need for a substance to return to the aroused (perceived as normal (or desired)) state”.


It may be that indulging in one’s negative self perception recreates a neural based virtual reality. One is almost bodily transported back in time. Back to a drinking period. In a neural sense, back in the drink and not fully in sobriety, however fleetingly.

It does leave a neural taste for it, a torturous transient desire.

I remember it, particularly in early recovery, when the ‘recovery’ script was not written yet and I did not have a habitual recovery self schema to automatically activate, to pull me out of this neural reverie, this bio-chemical vicarious pleasure.

The problem is that it happens to you without you asking it! You can be invoking a negative self schema automatically without wanting to reawaken this  ghost.

I see people relapse because they have no emotional sobriety and they seem to be emotionally drunk before they are actually drunk. Emotionally drunk seems to be like a virtual drunk, brings up the similar feelings or neurochemical reactions as actual drinking.


1. Cannon, R., Lubar, J., & Baldwin, D. (2008). Self-perception and experiential schemata in the addicted brain. Applied psychophysiology and biofeedback,33(4), 223-238.