If the human connection is the opposite of addiction, can there be addiction where there is a connection?
In a 2015 TED Talk entitled “Everything You Think You Know About Addiction is Wrong,” British journalist Johann Hari talks about the underlying causes of addiction, concluding that the opposite of addiction is not sobriety, it’s the connection and social bonding. He talks about the research that proves that addiction is not really about the pleasurable effects of substances, instead, it’s about the user’s inability to make healthy connections. As Hari tells it, addiction is not a substance disorder, it’s a social disorder.
Hari’s conclusion is the exact opposite of societal views of substance use. Society believes that the pleasurable effects of alcohol, cocaine, and heroin are what drives addiction. Studies do support that substance use triggers the release of dopamine, a pleasure neurochemical in the brain. If this long-held belief is correct, then everybody who ever drank or used opiates (even prescription) would become addicted. To the contrary, only approximately 10 percent of the people who use, become addicted. The remaining 80% either walk away from substance use completely or use it recreationally. It is now believed that social connections are what keep that 80 % from becoming addicted.
Welcome to Rat Park
This social connection phenomenon left scientists in the 1970s and early 1980s scratching their heads. Canadian psychologist Bruce Alexander looked at the infamous rat study of empty cages and water bottles — one containing water and the other heroin water. In this experiment, with empty cages and, as time passed the rats did drink the heroin water and eventually died from heroin overdose. This research concluded that the dopamine pleasure response from the heroin was addictive.
But if the dopamine pleasure response was the sole reason for addiction, then why don’t all users become addicted? It bothered Alexander that the rats were isolated in small cages with no other stimulation but heroin. He surmised that the rats chose the heroin water because there was nothing else to do. Alexander created what is now referred to as “rat park,” a considerably larger cage that included hamster wheels, multi-colored balls, plenty of tasty food, and space for mating and raising litters. He placed 20 rats of both genders in the new rat park and mirrored the old experiment of one bottle of water and one bottle of heroin water. In the new rat park environment, the heroin was ignored. The rats showed more interest in rat activities like playing, fighting, eating, and mating. In this experiment, he discovered that with social stimulation and connection, the addiction to the heroin water disappeared. Even the rats who had previously preferred heroin water in isolation, left it alone once they were introduced to “rat park”.
The Human Connection
Rats are social creatures, like humans. To be happy, humans need stimulation, company, play, drama, sex, and interaction. In addition, humans need trust and emotional attachment.
In the 1950s, John Bowlby studied small children separated from their parents. When infants, toddlers and children had safe and reliable caregivers, they are well-adjusted and emotionally healthier than those who didn’t experience secure attachment early in life. Bowlby discovered that without secure early attachments, humans were more vulnerable to addiction. With human addiction, overcoming the lack of trust and connection created in childhood, creates another challenge to overcome. Substance use treatment communities need to involve connecting the user to a network of safe, supportive, reliable, and empathetic people.
Portugal, who decriminalized illicit substances in 2001, takes a broader-than-normal approach to overcoming substance abuse. Instead of spending money on incarceration, Portugal has focused its resources on helping substance users connect with society. Portugal offers financial incentives to employers who hire and provide substance abusers a chance to reconnect with society in a positive and productive way. Additionally, the Portugal government funds traditional treatment opportunities and various other forms of social support. By actively reintegrating addicts into society, they learn to trust and connect.
By decriminalizing drugs, addiction and related drug problems have significantly decreased. Drug use among adolescents and drug related deaths are downs. Jails and prison are no longer overcrowded. Portugal’s unprecedented strategy of connecting rather than isolating addicted drug users has been extremely effective.
The rat park and real-life Portugal experiment appear to prove that the opposite of addiction is not sobriety, it is the connection. Developing healthy interpersonal connections as a part of recovery and healing is not easy, it takes time, effort, and a support system. The good news? Recovery and social connection are possible for even the most problematic addicts. At Healing Springs Ranch, we want you to experience holistic recovery.
The treatment team at Healing Springs Ranch places an emphasis on getting to the underlying issues that led you to addiction in the first place. We’ll work with you to understand the “why” behind your addiction to help you overcome it. Contact us today to begin the connection process.