It’s pretty common knowledge that rats will choose to use cocaine addictively in a laboratory setting, if given unlimited access to it. But did you know that rats who are placed in a fun, engaging, social, mentally-stimulating environment will not partake in the cocaine in an addictive manner? Researchers have realized that the rats in the community environment don’t feel the need to use cocaine excessively. It’s only when in isolation that the rats choose the cocaine. Because why not? What else have they got to do with their time?
The experiment is simple. Put a rat in a cage, alone, with two water bottles. One is just water. The other is water laced with heroin or cocaine. Almost every time you run this experiment, the rat will become obsessed with the drugged water, and keep coming back for more and more, until it kills itself.
The advert explains: “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.”
But in the 1970s, a professor of Psychology in Vancouver called Bruce Alexander noticed something odd about this experiment. The rat is put in the cage all alone. It has nothing to do but take the drugs. What would happen, he wondered, if we tried this differently? So Professor Alexander built Rat Park. It is a lush cage where the rats would have colored balls and the best rat-food and tunnels to scamper down and plenty of friends: everything a rat about town could want. What, Alexander wanted to know, will happen then?
In Rat Park, all the rats obviously tried both water bottles, because they didn’t know what was in them. But what happened next was startling.
The rats with good lives didn’t like the drugged water. They mostly shunned it, consuming less than a quarter of the drugs the isolated rats used. None of them died. While all the rats who were alone and unhappy became heavy users, none of the rats who had a happy environment did.
At first, I thought this was merely a quirk of rats, until I discovered that there was — at the same time as the Rat Park experiment — a helpful human equivalent taking place. It was called the Vietnam War. Time magazine reported using heroin was “as common as chewing gum” among U.S. soldiers, and there is solid evidence to back this up: some 20 percent of U.S. soldiers had become addicted to heroin there, according to a study published in the Archives of General Psychiatry. Many people were understandably terrified; they believed a huge number of addicts were about to head home when the war ended.
But in fact some 95 percent of the addicted soldiers — according to the same study — simply stopped. Very few had rehab. They shifted from a terrifying cage back to a pleasant one, so didn’t want the drug any more.
Professor Alexander argues this discovery is a profound challenge both to the right-wing view that addiction is a moral failing caused by too much hedonistic partying, and the liberal view that addiction is a disease taking place in a chemically hijacked brain. In fact, he argues, addiction is an adaptation. It’s not you. It’s your cage.
After the first phase of Rat Park, Professor Alexander then took this test further. He reran the early experiments, where the rats were left alone, and became compulsive users of the drug. He let them use for fifty-seven days — if anything can hook you, it’s that. Then he took them out of isolation, and placed them in Rat Park. He wanted to know, if you fall into that state of addiction, is your brain hijacked, so you can’t recover? Do the drugs take you over? What happened is — again — striking. The rats seemed to have a few twitches of withdrawal, but they soon stopped their heavy use, and went back to having a normal life. The good cage saved them.
I theorize that all addiction is the same thing… lack of connection. I have no trouble staying off Facebook when I’m out and about, visiting with friends or family, running errands, etc. It’s when I’m feeling lonely, isolated, faced with either cleaning my house (again) or scrolling through my news feed that I just can’t seem to resist.
Until not that long ago, humans interacted tangibly with each other daily. And not with just members of one’s family or extended family, but with members of the greater community at large. The lack of connection we as a species are experiencing is likely a driving force behind increases in everything from crime to mental/physical health problems to parenting struggles. (For a great read on the adverse effects the decline of the community on child development, and why this happened, read this article by Peter Gray, Ph.D.)
Loving, caring physical touch has been known to lower stress levels so significantly that wounds even heal faster. I would posit that just being in the presence of happy individuals improves one’s mood. Which is why churches are so successful… they meet several times a week, sing uplifting songs, hug everyone, and talk about things like loving your neighbor. Why wouldn’t people like to go there? And how better to get people to donate money to you than to give them happy feelings? Not that all churches are taking advantage of this, but some definitely are. What we need are communities like churches, without the hell and damnation, without the silly recitations and expectation of belief in a deity; but with all the things like visiting the sick and elderly, free child care, potlucks, food pantries, love and concern for all.
The question is, how do we get people to see that Facebook isn’t real connection? Beyond that, how do we get people to see that they know more about their favorite sitcom family than their friends’ families… and what a tragedy that is? This disconnection is so pervasive, it might take a huge jolt to wake everyone up to it.
I think we all know, deep down, that connection is what we need. It’s why we’re so quick to click that tantalizing button: “Connect with me on ______.” (Fill in the blank.)
So what’s it going to take to end the disconnection, once and for all?