Rat cages & Vietnam: Empowering insights into addiction

by | May 11, 2015

If you’re old enough, you remember the commercial from the 1980s: A solitary rat in an empty cage desperately gnaws on a white chunk.

In the background a narrator’s ominous voice warns, as the rat begins to lurch and twitch and eventually lays still:

“Only one drug is so addictive, nine out of ten laboratory rats will use it. And use it. And use it. Until dead. It’s called cocaine. And it can do the same thing to you.”

It’s a disturbing illustration of our paradigm of addiction, which we’ve held for the past hundred years in the war on drugs.

Addiction, dictates the paradigm, is a simple matter of biochemistry. Take an addictive substance enough times and your brain gets hooked — the proven effects of dopamine triggers and serotonin release.

But this simplistic view ignores the elephant in the room: Why do people — or rats — feel compelled to take drugs in the first place?

Psychology professor Bruce Alexander has shed light on this. His startling experiments in the 1970s turned the rat-in-a-cage commercial — and its accompanying paradigm — on its head.

Alexander noticed something about the standard rat experiment: the rat is alone in the cage.

He wondered what would happen if a more rat-friendly environment were provided. He built Rat Park, a playground for rats with all the amenities: colored balls, tunnels, great food, plenty of rat friends.

Two water bottles were provided — one with plain water and another with cocaine-laced water.

Not knowing what was in them, all the rats tried both water bottles.

The results were stunning: The rats with good lives mostly shunned the drugged water, consuming less than a quarter of the drugs the isolated rats used. None of them died.

Professor Alexander then took the test a step further. He put rats in a cage alone and let them use cocaine for fifty-seven days.

Then he removed them from isolation and placed them in Rat Park. When your brain gets hooked, he wondered, is it hijacked and unrecoverable forever?

He discovered that, after being integrated into the ideal environment, the rats experienced a few twitches of withdrawal but soon stopped their heavy use and resumed a normal rat life.

Journalist Johann Hari, in a quest to uncover the truth about the war on drugs, noticed a human equivalent to the Rat Park experiment: the Vietnam War.

The author of Chasing the Scream: The First and Last Days of the War on Drugs, Hari explains that Time magazine reported using heroin was “as common as chewing gum” among U.S. soldiers. About 20 percent of U.S. soldiers had become addicted to heroin during the war.

It was believed that a huge number of addicts would hit the streets when the war ended.

But strangely, about 95 percent of the addicted soldiers simply stopped. Very few had rehab.

Like the rats, when their environment changed, they no longer felt compelled to escape it.

Hari’s conclusion is that,

“…human beings have a deep need to bond and form connections. It’s how we get our satisfaction. If we can’t connect with each other, we will connect with anything we can find — the whirr of a roulette wheel or the prick of a syringe…we should stop talking about ‘addiction’ altogether, and instead call it ‘bonding.’ A heroin addict has bonded with heroin because she couldn’t bond as fully with anything else. So the opposite of addiction is not sobriety. It is human connection.”

If you’re suffering from an addiction, or know someone who is, this research is profoundly empowering.

Instead of beating yourself up and blaming yourself for a lack of willpower (or judging a person in your life who is addicted), start questioning what is wrong in your environment that you’re trying to escape.

Instead of trying to fix yourself, try fixing your environment.

(For tools to help with this, click here to download my free toolkit now.)

What are your sources of discontentment, frustration, stress, or anxiety? What deeply unmet needs are plaguing you? Are you struggling in your marriage? Are you not finding fulfillment in your job or career? Are you harboring wounds from past abuse?

When you internalize your addiction as a personal weakness, you feel helpless to overcome it.

But by externalizing it as an environmental challenge, now you’re empowered to conquer. Your willpower will increase to the degree that your needs are met.

We don’t get addicted because we’re bad people looking for cheap thrills. We get addicted because we have deep unmet needs.

Figure out how to meet those needs, and addiction takes care of itself.

(For more tools to break addictions and find more connection, click here to download my free toolkit now.)

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