In the 70’s, scientist Bruce Alexander conducted experiments on rats. Quite simply, the caged rats had the opportunity to either drink pure water or to drink water that had been laced with heroin.The rats in the cage uniformly chose the heroin water over the pure water.
Rather than leaving the experiment at that, Alexander had the interest and empathy to wonder if the results would have been different if the rats’ environment was less punishing. It made sense that rats isolated and locked in a cage with no outlet or stimulation would get high given the opportunity.
Alexander conducted the experiment again, but this time he created a Rat Park. The cage in which he housed the rats was 200 times larger than a typical isolation cage, with wheels and coloured balls to play with, plenty of food to eat, and spaces for mating,and raising litters. Rather than the rats being housed in isolation, he put 20 rats – both male and female- into the cage. Under these revised circumstances, Alexander recreated the old experiment using one bottle of pure water and one bottle of heroin-laced water. In The Rat Park, the rats ignored the heroin and enjoyed a ‘happy’ rat life of eating, playing, fighting and mating.
This study concluded that when provided with the opportunity to connect socially and to experience stimulation…the propensity for addiction vanished, even for those who had previously been addicted in the isolated heroin cages.
Human beings are actually not that different from rats, rats are often the animal of choice for behavioral experiments because they, like us, are social creatures. John Bowlby studied the relationship styles of small children and found that young children flourish when given secure attachment figures. He concluded that children are more able to grow into effective and happy adults having been raised by loving and reliable caregivers.If the ability to connect with others is impaired, and people are unable to participate in a human equivalent of The Rat Park they become more at risk for addiction.
Some feel that the chronic sense of isolation experienced by many can be blamed on how our society has developed, the psychological wounds inflicted by fast paced patriarchy, consumerism, and capitalism have been experienced at epidemic levels. Carl Jung wrote about this stark reality saying;
‘The gigantic catastrophes that threaten us today are not elemental happenings of a physical or biological order, but psychic events. To a quite terrifying degree, we are threatened by wars and revolutions which are nothing other than psychic epidemics. At any moment, several million human beings may be smitten with a new madness, and then we shall have another world war or devastating revolution. Instead of being at the mercy of wild beasts, earthquakes, landslides, and inundations, modern man is battered by the elemental forces of his own psyche.’
Addicts often report of a sense of loneliness, a sense of being inherently different, and thus, unable to fit in with peers. using or engaging with addictive behaviour initially provides a sense of community or some. However, tragically, the relationships formed within an addictive context can often perpetuate and deepen isolation.
Those who have an insecure attachment style or who find themselves isolated and alone are not necessarily trapped in a life of perpetual unhappiness and addiction. No, we can choose to change. Though it may be challenging, it is eminently possible to learn and practice connecting with others, and we can heighten our awareness of when we have the opportunity to connect. Through mindfulness we can learn to savour moments of connection and really dwell in the shared moments of positive connection we find through the day.
Love and Connection
Perhaps one of the most tangible feelings of love occurs between babies and their caregivers, as they gaze into each other’s eyes and mirror sounds and expressions – even mirroring the very emotions that we feel. The love I am talking about hear is obviously not a narrow, perhaps romantic, definition of love. Love is broad, half of the population are single or widowed , this does not mean that half the population is in a world that is empty of love.
Connection and love can be found in all kinds of moments, with friends, even with strangers. Try to practice mindfulness throughout the day notice the connection in ordinary moments like a smile shared at the checkout or in eye contact held with a friend. We can get better at connecting with others! We can ”work out’ our ability to feel positively in relations to others and develop a more open and loving style of relating to ourselves and others.
Learning and Plasticity
Rats understand innately what to do in order to connect with each other. Even when addicted, once in The Rat Park, rats get on with life without the need for reeducation or any kind of rat therapy. We are unlike rats in that respect, for us some psychological/spiritual work is often needed to heal wounds of disconnection.
The science of neural plasticity shows that our experience, particularly repeated experience, impacts brain functioning. This can work to our benefit, in terms of developing new ways of being, whilst something might seem alien and difficult at first, it will become easier and easier with practice.
Grass roots movements have long known the need for fellowship, hence the existence of ‘interpersonal group therapy’ and 12 Step meetings. “The therapeutic value”, says the basic text of Narcotics Anonymous, “of one addict helping another is without parallel.”
Social bonds give us meaning and a sense of purpose. When we acknowledge the kindness of others and create healthy, reciprocal, and loving relationships,we experience gratitude. In fact, one type of positive experience grows our ability to find more. Over time, we broaden and build , as Barbara Friedrickson puts it, our capacity to feel a whole spectrum of positive emotions.
It is not just academics and professionals that have recognised the healing power of community and connection.Those who identify as process addicts (gambling, food, sex, etc.) have succesfully adapted the anonymous fellowship approach, too. There is now a fellowship for almost any addictive behaviour you could think of. This broader definition of addiction helps us to further understand addiction as a neurological illness that interstects with the social, political, economic and cultural influences that create an environment primed for addiction.
In his TED Talk, Johann Hari cites how Portugal has focused its efforts on helping addicts connect with society. In Portugal, social services ensure that addicts have work through government assisted programs, which funds half of that person’s salary for a year. The system provides work as a reason for getting up in the morning, a sense of being part of and the opportunity to reintegrate back into society. This is done so that the former addict can have a chance of living with a sense of meaning, purpose, and connection. As a result of their approach:
- Drug use is down.
- Drug use among adolescents is down.
- Drug related deaths and other drug related harms are down.
- Prison overcrowding is down.
- Creating connection rather than puishment has helped create a better society.
Hari coined it aptly when he said ‘Sobriety is not the opposite of addiction, connection is.’ If people can grow their capacity for experiencing connection recovery is then possible.