Understanding Addiction As a Social Disease

There are many theories regarding the true source of addiction and addictive behaviors. In the 1970s a professor from Vancouver named Bruce Alexander sought to uncover the source of addictive behavior in a study he and his fellow researchers called “Rat Park”. Inspired by the cultural anti-drug war beginning at the time, Alexander sought to conduct an experiment in which addictive behaviors were observed using laboratory rats. A similar experiment had been conducted earlier and came to the conclusion that drugs themselves were responsible for addiction. Alexander, however, was dissatisfied with this conclusion and argued that the first test was ineffective because of the way the rats were confined in small boxes known as Skinner boxes where the only activity for them to engage in was drug abuse. Rats were tethered to the ceilings of these boxes and rendered practically immobile. The only thing for the rat to do was to pull a small lever which injected drugs into their system via a surgically implanted tube. Alexander believed that in order to truly discover the cause of addiction the rats must be allowed to make other choices besides taking drugs. In this way, Alexander hoped to mimic the real life opportunities that human have to do the same.

The Rat Park Study

The results were astounding. Rats are naturally very sociable and active creatures, not unlike humans. Thus, they crave exercise and stimulation just like we do. Alexander’s experiment sought to provide the rats with this social fulfillment and see if they continued to abuse drugs and demonstrate addictive behavior. Rat Park, as it became known, was a large play facility for the rats where they could interact with one another and play with a variety of platforms, cans, and wheels to their heart’s content. Just like with the previous experiment, however, these rats were also allowed the opportunity to abuse drugs. But did they? The answer is no! The rats in the previous experiment who were confined solitarily consumed significantly more drugs than their Rat Park counterparts.

What Can We Learn From This Study?

So what does this mean? Alexander’s experiment showed that the true cause of addiction may not be the substance itself but rather may be a response to the adverse effects of isolation. In other words, drugs are a tool use to cope with isolation and to fill the void. The rats that were isolated and unable to do anything but use the drugs abused them frequently, those that were allowed to roam freely in Rat Park, however, showed very little interest in drugs and barely touched the ones provided. What does this say about human addiction? That the true source of addiction isn’t necessarily the presence of substances but rather the motivation whether or not to use them. Rat Park shows us that the strongest motivation for drug use is isolation.

Further Proof

For further proof we need look no further than our own past and present. Alexander pointed to Native Canadian communities for further proof of the harmful effects of isolation as a motivation for substance abuse and addiction. Upon colonization, natives found themselves relocated and separated from their lands and fellow people. Children were taken from their families and enrolled in the schools of the colonizers to be indoctrinated into their culture. Consequently, these children were forbidden to speak their native tongues and if they did return to their people they found themselves strangers within their own cultures. In essence, natives became isolated not only from their colonizers but from each other. Following colonization, widespread alcohol and drug abuse was documented amongst the natives. Further, other addictive behaviors like gambling and a prevalence in dysfunctional relationships were also observed. Its more than coincidental that these issues should arise after the enforced isolation caused by colonization.

In the present day, hospitals give certain patients diamorphine to help cope with severe pain. Diamorphine, however, is a medical grade of heroin. If one is to believe that addiction is solely caused by the drug itself, then what is to stop patients who are given doses of diamorphine in hospitals from becoming drug addicts once they leave? The difference here is that the patients who are leaving the hospital are returning to their social environments. Their lives are fulfilled by social interaction and activity rather than needing to be fulfilled by substances like diamorphine or heroin. Psychology Today notes that “we are driven innately from birth for close human contact. To the degree that we are deprived of this and do not possess the ability to accomplish this task, we are emotionally deficient and vulnerable to addiction.” In other words, just as the lab rats craved social interaction and stimulation, so do we. Deprived of this necessity we are more likely to turn to addiction as a means of filling that void and numbing ourselves from the stress and anxiety it may cause.

Isolation And Mental Health

Does this mean that certain substances aren’t highly addictive in their own right? No. What it does mean, however, is that isolation can heavily influence addiction and addictive behaviors. While we all make our own choices, it’s important to understand how our lives and emotions come to influence those choices. Chronic isolation causes people to start searching for relief. Unfortunately, for many that relief comes in the form of substances like drugs and alcohol. Conversely, this means that a major step in recovery may come from finding other activities to engage in with people you enjoy spending time with. Social integration can help combat the negative effects and feelings induced by isolation. Fill the void so nothing else will need to, especially not addiction. In essence, the world is our Rat Park, and it’s ours to experience and explore as we see fit. Don’t let addiction be a substitute for the real stimulation you crave, see that instead.