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Addiction, Connection and the Rat Park Study

If only connection was enough.

Recently, I was bombarded with Facebook messages and posts about an addiction story everyone got really excited about.

This story followed Johann Hari’s book, Chasing the Scream, and his follow-up TED talk. In the talk, Johann mentioned the Rat Park experiment conducted by Bruce Alexander.

In this experiment, rats, who are participating in drug studies, are given a large cage with free food, access to sex, toys, and many playmates (the childhood kind, not Hugh Hefner’s). As Hari said in his talk, it was more a Rat Heaven then Rat Park... but still.

Under such conditions, Dr. Alexander found that rats actually refused drug cocktails, unlike their solo-caged study-mates.

The conclusion — it’s not the drugs that are an addiction but rather the environmental stressors that are placed on the rats we are studying. Eliminate the stress and you get rid of the addiction!

How amazing is that? If only things were really that simple…

Dealing with the real world

Let's ignore for a moment the methodological issues with Dr. Alexander's study (more on that here). Assuming that what we are aiming for is not a world free of addicted rats, but rather a world free of addicted people, I have been wondering for quite a few years how we could translate these findings into real life.

The decriminalization efforts in Portugal, which Hari mentioned as well, are also something I’ve written about years ago and I agree that arresting drug users for their crimes leads to more, not less, addiction in the world.

The issue I am struggling with it this — marriages are imperfect, children are abused (physically and psychologically), wars affect citizens and soldiers and bad luck brings about traumatic loss. Our environment, unlike the environment created for the rats in Rat Heaven, is far from stress-free.

Worse still, as far as I can tell, we will, for the foreseeable future, be unable to create such a utopia for most people on Earth. If this is so, there is little doubt that some of the people affected by negative circumstances, traumatic experiences, or biological disturbances will be led down the path towards struggles with drugs and such.

To make matters more complicated, we know that biological influences related to genetic differences, neonatal (birth-related) circumstances, and early nutrition can alter brain mechanisms and make people more, or less, susceptible to the effects of trauma.

For instance, we now know that early life trauma alters the function of the hypothalamic-pituitary-adrenal axis, making individuals who have been exposed to trauma at an early age far more susceptible to stress, anxiety and substance use; or that hypoxia during delivery (certainly a form of trauma) can increase the chances of mental health defects later in life.

Like the Rat Heaven experiment, it should be somewhat obvious that without these early traumas, the individuals in question would experience less “need” for heavy-duty coping strategies like, let’s say, opiates. So biology is important here at least in this regard.

So trauma and stress are is not at all objective truths but rather individually determined patterns of influence. I am fully on board with making sure that the treatment system we use does not exacerbate the problems that stress and trauma bring about (so no shaming, breaking-down, or expulsion of clients for their struggles), but I think that the picture this TED talk and the related book presents is far too simplified to be as helpful as we want it to be.

I believe that more focus should be given to improved prevention efforts in order to reduce the likelihood of these early traumas and therefore of later drug-seeking experience in the first place. I also know that significant efforts are already being put into this sort of work through a multitude of social-services organizations and government agencies.

Needless to say, the demand for drug use has not abated despite these efforts. The work must be more difficult than setting children up with a big box, water, and some chew toys.

How oversimplification hurts us

And this brings up a question for me — what if humans are not like rats? I know it’s a shocking suggestion but just stay with me for a second.

What if human life is somewhat more complicated than rat life, science lab or not? What if Rat Heaven is not a recipe for success in eradicating human addiction because our own internal struggles, social networks and consciousness-seeking drive us farther in seeking mind-alteration than they do rats? Isn’t it possible that even if we were somehow able to make Earth a Utopia (and I would argue we are moving farther from such a reality and not closer) we would still be dealing with substance use? It’s been happening for at least 8000 years already and I’m thinking it’s here to stay.

So while I agree that social connection is very important for dealing with substance use problems (that is why we don’t shame our clients at IGNTD and don’t expel them for using when the program doesn’t call for it), it also matters who we’re connecting to and that, unfortunately, is something we control only to a limited extent.

We have to deal with the circumstances we are born into — dysfunctional marriages, depression, dietary limitations, and gang violence — and sometimes substances are the solution, not the problem.

So let’s keep moving towards a shame-free way of looking at addiction but let’s not pretend that wishing the struggles away will make it so.

An earnest hug is great, but it is not a panacea.

We have a lot of hard work to do.

© 2015 Adi Jaffe, All Rights Reserved

Read Dr. Jaffe's book, The Abstinence Myth, and be sure to check out his TEDx talk, Rebranding Our Shame, as well as his podcast.

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