A month ago, I read a very interesting article on Huffington Post by Johann Hari about the root cause of why people become addicted to things. Whether it’s drugs, alcohol, sex, food, etc., Hari argues that everyone has a deep need to bond with others in order to form connections. However, that connection doesn’t always come easy for some due to a variety of reasons. That’s why people start bonding with things that make them feel pleasure like gambling, drugs, alcohol, sex and so on.
Johann Hari traveled more than 30,000 miles in order to research and hear the stories of different kinds of addicts for his book Chasing the Scream: The First and Last Days of the War on Drugs. He argues that the old story that biological factors and hijacking chemicals are the root of drug addiction is simply not entirely true and introduces us to a new story. A new theory that gives us hope for ending the war on drugs and addiction.
The Rat Park Experiments
Hari discusses various experiments done with rats concerning drug use and addiction. Years ago there was a rat experiment done that became pretty famous. The experiment basically consisted of one rat, one cage and two water bottles. One water bottle just had water in it; the other had water with some heroin or cocaine mixed with it. The results? The rat tried both water bottles but kept going back to the one with the drugs in it. In fact, it continued to go back until it killed itself by overdosing.
Despite some pretty good evidence that drug addiction was an addiction that you just couldn’t help once you started using drugs, Dr. Bruce Alexander tried his own experiment with rats, cages and drugs in the 70s but he switched things up a bit. He wondered if the fact that the rat was alone in that cage had anything to do with its addictive behavior and exhibited love of the drug. Could loneliness and boredom have something to do with chasing the high? With interest piqued, Alexander conducted a different experiment.
Rat Park Heaven
Alexander constructed a wonderful “Rat Park” that was full of the best rat food, colored balls and a bunch of rats—a mini upscale community so to speak. He put the two different types of water bottles in the park and sure enough all of the rats tried both water bottles. What was interesting about this experiment is that the rats didn’t act quite the same as the solo rats did in the previous one.
Surprisingly enough, most of the rats didn’t go back to the drug-induced water. Instead they drank less than a quarter of what the isolated rats drank. On top of that, none of the rats in the lush Rat Park became heavy users or died. What accounted for this change? Was it coincidence? Or more intelligent rats?
Connections Trump Chemicals
No, Alexander argues that the rats chose not to rely on the drugs for the high because they had connections with other rats. They had formed bonds of affection and did not need to feel the high of the drugs. They were in a happy environment. Interestingly enough, he mentions that the same type of behavior occurred with the Vietnam vets. While in Vietnam, many soldiers used heroin regularly and when the war was over, many people thought the vets would come home as heroin addicts unable to get on with their lives in the States, but this just wasn’t the case.
Contrarily, most of the vets came home, stopped using heroin and went back to their lives with family and friends. Why weren’t they addicts? Alexander argues it is because they had a happy environment to live in so they could stop using drugs quite easily. In other words, they went from the “isolated cage” to the “happy cage.”
He states that addiction is based upon your cage and not necessarily a chemical that hijacks your brain and theorizes that the answer to addiction is not sobriety, but human connection. The war on drugs may possibly end with just a change of cages from isolation and emptiness to community and connection.
Heart of the Matter
Could it be that simple? Does disconnection really affect people so negatively? Can people stop abusing drugs simply by getting in touch with their own feelings and other people? I personally find it to be true based upon my own observations and experiences. Currently, we live in a society that has cut the cords of connection by breeding a lot of greed, materialism, competition and offering a parody of reality through the Internet (namely Facebook). Look around and be honest: people feel disconnected, isolated and bored and many turn to whatever makes them feel anything better than dead inside.
It’s time to reconnect with ourselves and others, to form meaningful bonds with loved ones, friends, neighbors and so on. Then, maybe less people will act out on addiction and feel like the rats in the second experiment: content, loved, important and worthy. As Hari so movingly put it:
“When I returned from my long journey, I looked at my ex-boyfriend, in withdrawal, trembling on my spare bed, and I thought about him differently. For a century now, we have been singing war songs about addicts. It occurred to me as I wiped his brow, we should have been singing love songs to them all along.”
That alone could end the war on drugs and addiction.
What do you think? Is human connection the real answer to the problem of addiction? Discuss in the comments below.