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Using Software To Visualize Addiction

Recently, The New York Times published a story that discussed addiction from a very different angle. Its intent was to expose the physical dependencies and emotional pain that this issue causes, with an audience that may be unaware. To help put it all in perspective, the outlet approached freelance software artist Zach Lieberman and went through a process that visually simulated the darkness of substance abuse.


To pull off this unique experiment, two New York Times researchers interviewed more than a dozen current and former opioid users. That process included delving into all of the personal and physical hardships that accompany this disease; such as thoughts, feelings and the various sensations experienced while high on these drugs.


From there, seven unique stages were developed for visualization. They included the “gateway,” “tolerance,” “withdrawal,” “addiction,” “treatment,” “relapse,” and “recovery.” After that Leiberman stepped in, with a little help from an artistic dancer.


The researchers instructed the dancer how to interpret each stage through body movement. Lieberman would then film those movements and add visual computer effects to provide an extra emotional interpretation (such as an “aura” to demonstrate an initial high).


Researcher Rumsey Taylor explained the purpose and hope behind this project


“The narrative of the opioid crisis has a familiar visual vernacular: track-covered arms, empty syringes, the translucent amber cylinder of an empty pill container,” she explained. “These images visualize how drug users look from the outside, as opposed to what’s happening to them mentally, physically and emotionally. Our task with this story was to evoke the subjective experience of heroin use.”


In essence, the goal was to put people inside the mind of a user. From there, readers can hopefully see what draws certain people to these substances. It also explores why it can be so difficult to break free from an addiction.


Lieberman chimed in on the project too, calling it one of his most meaningful pieces of work.


“These visuals show a human form that weaves in and out of being recognizable,” he added. “It seemed like an appropriate way to express some of the physical and emotional oscillation of addiction. The result, I hope, is a striking visualization of the physical and emotional experiences of someone who is addicted.”


Lieberman has already published some of his progress on his Instagram page. There you can scroll through the various interpretations and understand each phase on a much more personal level. You can see his most recent post below…