Instructor looks to inspire empathy with science of addiction talks

  • Science instructor Thomas Collins delivers a lecture on the science of addiction at the Bernardston Senior Center on Monday afternoon. STAFF PHOTO/JULIAN MENDOZA

  • Science instructor Thomas Collins delivers a lecture on the science of addiction at the Bernardston Senior Center on Monday afternoon. STAFF PHOTO/JULIAN MENDOZA

Staff Writer
Published: 1/31/2023 6:54:47 PM
Modified: 1/31/2023 6:54:35 PM

BERNARDSTON — For generations, people have dismissed addiction as a weakness of willpower. Standing before some of the area’s older residents on Monday afternoon, science instructor Thomas Collins refuted this stigma with science.

“I think the new way that addiction has been defined takes away that concept of willpower,” he said.

Collins, who teaches science at Burr and Burton Academy in Manchester, Vermont, delivered his “Understanding Addiction” lecture to about a dozen people at the Bernardston Senior Center. The seminar detailed the neuroscience behind addiction as a means of “breeding understanding and empathy” in those raised without thorough knowledge of the topic.

Citing the National Institute on Drug Abuse (NIDA), Collins described addiction “as a chronic, relapsing disorder characterized by compulsive drug seeking and use despite adverse consequences.”

“Addiction is a lot like other diseases, such as heart disease,” the NIDA website reads. “Both disrupt the normal, healthy functioning of an organ in the body, both have serious harmful effects, and both are, in many cases, preventable and treatable.”

To establish a tangible basis, Collins broke down the brain’s limbic system and structures related to emotions, behaviors and desires. Together, these structures determine how habits are formed and how pleasure is felt from indulging.

“How many people have some very strong habits?” Collins asked, prompting most hands to shoot up. “Everybody has some very strong habits.”

Dopamine, a neurotransmitter, is “central” to signaling “that something important is happening that needs to be remembered,” Collins explained. A dopamine release “is activated by a healthy, pleasurable experience” and “causes changes in neural connectivity that make it easier to repeat the activity again and again without thinking about it, leading to the formation of habits,” he continued.

The brain will gradually require more dopamine to be satisfied as someone’s addiction deepens, Collins explained. It will create more receptors to satisfy as it gets accustomed to consistent dopamine releases. This applies to anything habit-forming, Collins said, whether it be drugs or other experiences.

“These receptors will be like, ‘Dude, where’s the dopamine?’ and the hit’s not the same anymore, whether it be opiates or a smartphone,” Collins said.

What further complicates the international crisis of addiction is its unpredictability, Collins stressed, though research shows that genetics have between a 40% and 60% influence on addiction.

“I’ve never had a student say, ‘Mr. Collins, when I get older, I wanna be an addict,” he said. “We have nobody who ever says that, and yet, it happens.”

Collins said he hopes his presentation at the Senior Center might change how people — particularly from older generations — place their blame relative to addiction.

“I find kids right now to be so non-judgmental,” he said, comparing his usual demographic of pupils at Burr and Burton Academy to that of the Senior Center. “I think people my age and older, it’s hard for them to let go of their stereotypes. You can’t enact change if you don’t have more people in your community who understand.”

Reach Julian Mendoza at 413-930-4231 or


Support Local Journalism

Subscribe to the Greenfield Recorder, keeping Franklin County informed since 1792.

Greenfield Recorder

14 Hope Street
Greenfield, MA 01302-1367
Phone: (413) 772-0261


Copyright © 2021 by Newspapers of Massachusetts, Inc.
Terms & Conditions - Privacy Policy