The Empty Rat Cage

My Dear Friends and Readers,

There is a new theory of addiction that goes like this: We as humans have an innate need to bond.
When we are isolated we will bond with whatever we can to be able to hold up under the current physical environment in which we find ourselves.

This theory is not my theory but that of Bruce K Alexander, Professor Emeritus, Simon Fraser University in Van Couver British Columbia. Dr. Alexander is an experimental psychologist. From his observations of working with rats on the theory of addiction he observed that rat experiments were conducted where the rats were in isolation and could not see or touch each other. The only highlights in the day of each rat was when they were fed or their cages cleaned.

So what does this have to do with addiction? Well, the studies on addiction and what we thought we learned from rat studies on addiction may have been all wrong. Alexander observed that in any empty environment given a choice of plain water or cocaine or heroine laced water, of course the rats would choose the laced water.

Alexander wanted to know what would happen if he altered the design of the experiment by creating a “Rat Park.” In this rat park there were many other rats, colored balls and tunnels that actually led to cheese. Into this optimum rat environment Alexander placed plain water and cocaine laced water. The surprise was that the rats rarely ever chose to drink from the cocaine laced water. This led Alexander to hypothesize that maybe addiction was related to the human need to bond. When people have authentic social interaction and human bonding, then they are more  unlikely to choose drugs.

To digress for a moment. Yes, there are compounds in drugs that have chemical hooks. Alexander is not denying that.  What he is saying is that it is through  social interaction and human bonding we as humans are better equipped to handle life’s obstacles. When this social interaction is missing we as human beings will bond with anything that allow us to better handle our human condition- or as  Alexander might say it  “the empty rat cage.”

It is from those rat drug addiction experiments conducted in  the 1960’s  which lead to the way our society deals with addiction. Rather than teach addictions how to bond and socially interact we isolate them, shame them, inprison them and most unfortunately isolate them.

For those of you, shaking your heads and saying that Alexander’s experiments are on rats not people, there was an actual unintended experiment that used humans and drug addiction. That experiment was called the Viet Nam War.

Medical reports from the war indicated that approximately 20% of American soldiers fighting the war in Viet Nam were using large amounts of heroin.  Our health policy experts, believed we would have a heroin epidemic when these soldiers returned to the United States. That theory turned out to be incorrect. That’s because when those same soldiers were removed from the hourly stress of war and returned home to families and relationships and futures, they simply stopped using. Why? They were no longer in that horrific cage from which they had to numb themselves. (This is not to say that that all soldiers came home and chose not use drugs.)

From Alexander’s experiments on rats and social bonding and addiction this concept evolved:what if the opposite of addiction was not sobriety but society or socialization? If we as a culture began embracing this co-relationship between socialization and addiction, how would this effect the way we treat addicts and addiction?  I can only dream and keep spreading the message hugs not drugs.

So where does understanding and accepting this evolved concept leave me? It leaves me knowing that if  I have strong social bonds, friends and family members who accept and understand me, I am unlikely to act out on my addictive behaviors. My need to bond will not manifest itself in shopping or eating or any of the addictive behaviors that result when I feel lonely and alone. As a person who isolates, and one who is overly self-critical being around people who love you is the balm to life.  Therefore, I will make more friends. Love more intensely. Play more with my friends. Play more. Stay on the path of my dreams and find more people to join me on the journey.


Brianna S. Clark
The Addict Writes

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