What is responsible for addiction? The drugs themselves? Or something much more? Turns out everything we were taught about addiction is wrong.
Rat Park Experiment
In the early 20th Century, people tried to decipher the nature of addiction. They did so with an experiment even you can do at home. Get a cage and put a rat inside it. Then place a source of water and a source of diluted heroine. No matter how many times you repeat the experiment, it will result with the rat consuming the drug until it…dies. This is where your knowledge about addiction originated.
Fast-forward to the 1970s, a Canadian psychologist, Bruce K. Alexander, noticed that something was amiss in the experiment. The rat was in an empty cage with nothing to do but to take the drug. Isn’t it only natural that it took it?
So, what Alexander did was that he conducted the experiment in a large housing colony for rats 200 times larger in area, with around 20 rats for both sexes and with food, balls, wheels, tunnels, and a lot of room for mating. And of course a source of water and dilute heroin.
After a series of tests, he got his results. He found that not a single one took the heroine for a prolonged period of time! The heroine was barely touched(most likely only out of curiosity). Why the drastic change in the result?
Alexander concluded that social ties and other forms of pleasure and relief were responsible. Since the rats no longer needed heroine for relief, why take it?
If what we were taught about addiction were to be true. The rats should have died of an overdose. Then why didn’t they?
Now you may argue that rats and humans may be similar but are still distinct. Well, while the rat experiment happened, another similar human happened in parallel. The Vietnam war.
Takeaway: Now you at least know there is more to addiction than just ‘drugs’.
During the war, around 20% of the soldier self-administered heroin as they were in a similar condition as the rat in solitary confinement. They were in a gloomy jungle. They were alone. They could die any moment. Thus they relied on heroin for relief.
This caused a sort of uproar as Americans feared they would return as Junkies…at least that’s what we were taught to expect.
Astonishingly, 95% of the soldiers never needed rehab or even touched the drug. Why? Because they were no longer in a cage left to die alone. They were surrounded by loving families. People who cared. No longer in a life or death situation. What about the other 5%? My guess would be they didn’t receive the love or support they needed to give equal or more relief/pleasure the heroine gave.
Addictive chemicals are called ‘addictive’ for a reason. They release neurotransmitters like endorphins, dopamine, glutamate, and GABA.
If your brain is used to getting drugs and other chemicals to stimulate your brain, just stopping to take it will cause withdrawal symptoms. Social ties where we get equal levels of pleasure/relief hormones are able to combat the withdrawal symptoms.
Popular Ted talk by Johann Hari and the YouTube channel Kurzgesagt spurred media attention regarding the results. They told about how social ties played a crucial role in addiction. But, are social ties the answer to addiction?
Takeaway: Though social ties aren’t the magical healing pill for addiction. Now you know it is still a crucial component.
If you think about it, you can fit addiction into a habit loop.
When the rat felt lonely and bored(cue), it took the water with heroin(routine) and get a feeling of well-being/relief(reward).
In the case of the colony of rats, they followed a different routine with the same cue(boredom). They played or had sex which gave them the feeling of well-being(reward).
As for the Vietnam war, the cue was loneliness, routine was to take heroin or be with a loved one/have sex, the reward was a feeling of well being.
Do you see the pattern?
Takeaway: You at least have an idea how addiction can be modelled as a bad habit with a habit loop.
How to Break the Addiction
If you read carefully, the two habit loops of the rats in those two different conditions had similar, if not the same, cues. The routine however was different. Regardless, it gave the same reward.
If you want to ‘break’ a habit loop, find the cue. How? Track when you, for example, cheat on your diet. Do you do it at night? Or when you are with your friends? Or when you are stressed?
What routine do you follow? Do you eat a cookie? Eat along with friends?
What is the reward? Feel less hungry? The satisfaction of friends?
Once you have done that, you can at least attempt to change your routine with something less harmful. Feeling hungry? Eat a fruit. Can’t say no to friends? Just tell them you are on diet. They are your friends, surely they will understand(That’s why they are your friends in the first place).
If you fail to do so, don’t beat yourself up. Habits take time to form and will take time to change too. Just persevere. Look for more ways to change the routine and still get the same result.
Takeaway: You know how to deal with habits and addiction. If you got a friend struggling to get hold of their lives because of addiction, don’t isolate him. Make stronger bonds with him. After all, addiction is just a ‘bond’ we have to something that relieves us. Become that something for your friend.
“ Opposite of Addiction is Connection”
— Johann Hari
So in conclusion, addiction is not purely due to addictive chemicals. From the Rat Park experiment, we know that social ties play a huge role. And if you go deeper, it's actually just a bad habit formed after months of repetition. It is something we can all change if we persevere. Just change the routine.