For decades, science has been studying addiction searching for the central element that causes a person to become wholly dependent on drugs, alcohol or certain kinds of behavior for their sense of wellbeing. In the case of drugs, it’s commonly held that chemical compounds in narcotics are directly responsible for the uncontrollable craving and debilitating habits they produce. Just a few hits and you’re hooked, but is that really true? Research is revealing that most of what we thought we knew about addiction is wrong, and a quick look at one of the most commonly used drugs like heroin sheds new light on the deeper causes of dependence and how that knowledge can lead to healing and freedom.
The tragic stories of people who’ve experienced heroin addiction are unfortunately all too common. Many Americans have struggled with addiction in their own families, while it seems the media is never short on stories about the latest celebrity battling the drug. Because of the tragic details that usually go along with these reports, it’s often assumed that heroin by itself is highly addictive. It’s interesting to note then that hundreds of thousands of people take heroin legally every year in the U.S. and never become addicted.
According to the American Association of Orthopedic Surgeons (AAOS), more than 300,000 total hip replacements are performed in the U.S. each year. Patients who break a hip, have a hip replacement or hip surgery of any kind most often experience a very high degree of pain. As a result, they’re usually administered diamorphine (heroin) for weeks or months at a time. In fact, the heroin hip surgery patients receive is even more pure than what can be obtained on the street because it doesn’t contain any of the additives drug dealers use to dilute it. With this in mind, logic would conclude that at least some of these patients would end up addicted to heroin after their recovery, but research and regular patient follow-up shows this just doesn’t happen.
The current theory of addiction comes from research performed with rats in the early part of the 20th century. Those studies involved placing a single rat in a cage with two water bottles from which to choose. One had pure water, while the other was laced with either heroin or cocaine. Over time and with repeated use, the rat eventually drank exclusively from the drugged water bottle and with increasing frequency until it finally overdosed and died. This same outcome was repeated many times leading researchers to believe that it was chemical compounds in the drug that got the rat hooked and kept it compulsively coming back for more until it killed itself.
By the early 1970s, Dr. Bruce K. Alexander, professor emeritus in the Department of Psychology at Simon Fraser University in Burnaby, British Columbia, thought there was something odd about those experiments. In every case, the rat was placed in the cage alone with nothing else to do and no other rats to relate to. Dr. Alexander began to question how the experiment might turn out if the rat was placed in a different kind of environment, but still given the choice between the pure and drugged water. In his experiments, Dr. Alexander created what he described as Rat Park, a sensory-rich environment full of colored balls, running wheels, climbing towers, tubes to run through, and other rats with which they could play and have lots of sex. Incredibly, when rats were placed in a highly stimulating environment like Rat Park that they could relate to in multiple ways, they rarely chose the heroin-laced water, drinking less than 25% of the amount the isolated rats did. They also never used the drugged water compulsively, and none overdosed.
Around the same time as Dr. Alexander’s experiments, TIME magazine published an article featuring research that explained 40% of the soldiers fighting in Vietnam had tried heroin, while 20% were addicted to the drug. Naturally, it was assumed that there would be a lot of addicted servicemen coming home who would face all the usual social problems that go along with drug dependence. Amazingly, studies showed that after the war, 95% of these men didn’t need drug rehabilitation or even experience any withdrawal symptoms. They simply quit using the drug.
For Dr. Alexander, this was clear proof that the deeper causes of addiction were the same in his rats as they were in humans. While they were at war, the soldiers were in a stressful, isolating and disconnected environment. After returning home, however, their environment dramatically changed. Because they could enjoy love, companionship and family, and had a deeper sense of connection and purpose, they didn’t need the heroin to deal with the emotional stress from the lack of these important things in their lives. Dr. Alexander was quickly seeing that the fundamental key to addiction wasn’t really the chemical compounds in drugs that we once thought got people “hooked” nearly as much as the quality of their environment that drove them to the drugs, based on what they were lacking or perceived they were lacking in their lives.
Recognizing how the servicemen responded upon returning home from Vietnam, Dr. Alexander wanted to find out if the same results could be achieved in his Rat Park with rats that were already addicted to heroin. As one might expect, the results were equally fascinating. After a few withdrawal twitches, rats that had been on heroin for nearly 60consecutive days eventually shunned the drug in the social, stimulating Rat Park and went back to having a normal life, proving once again that the drug’s physical power to hijack the brain or take over one’s life wasn’t as all-powerful as we’d previously thought.
The power of external stimuli in our environment to drive our behavior is very real and has been known for quite some time. The environment includes everything and everyone outside ourselves; that means intimate, family, and social relationships, as well. Research that followed more than 12,000 people for 32 years showed those with a friend who became obese were 57% more likely to be obese themselves. Surrounded by the stress of war, lack of emotional and creative stimulation, along with other military friends who were also heroin users, it’s easy to see how these prompters led so many soldiers to use the drug. Back home without that negative stimuli to trigger their addiction, it became much easier for the soldiers to quit. It’s the same reason why hip surgery patients don’t get addicted in the first place because they know they’re going home to an environment that’s stimulating, peaceful, and full of love and support.
This is why it’s so common for people to go to expensive rehab retreats for weeks or months and do extremely well, only to relapse shortly after they return home to an environment with all the same triggers, such as isolation, a lack of purpose or emotional and creative stimulation, as well as negative or unsupportive relationships. It’s why 90% of all heroin addicts relapse once they get home, because nothing in their environment has changed. For most, the power of addiction doesn’t lie in a chemical hook that the body is craving, but in an emotional void that their environment is lacking. This is why a person can be just as tragically addicted to things like gambling, video games, pornography, shopping and so on that have no chemical hooks at all.
This lack comes from an absence of meaningful bonds in life. As humans, we have an innate need to connect with people and things that we love and have meaning for us. If we’re happy and healthy, this bonding happens naturally, and our spirits are filled up. If, however, we are traumatized, isolated or feel disconnected from life and others in some way, we will bond with something else that helps us alleviate that gnawing sense of lack or loss. We must, because bonding is in our nature. The way to break unhealthy bonds is to create new ones with people and things that we love and have meaning for us.
This isn’t to suggest that changing one’s environment and relationships is a panacea for all addictions in every person. People are different and sometimes chemicals do play a role in addiction, but in a much smaller percentage than we’d imagined. In his book, The Cult of Pharmacology, Richard DeGrandpre discusses how the advent of the nicotine patch in the 1990s was hailed as the silver bullet that would free all smokers from cigarettes. After many years, the Office of the Surgeon General found that only 17.7% of smokers were able to wean themselves off the patch, revealing that for a small percentage, their addiction was chemically-based, while it more than likely wasn’t for 82%, rendering the patches largely useless.
So while changing the environment shouldn’t be viewed as a cure-all for addiction, science is discovering that it’s easily one of the primary causes, and should be instituted immediately and dramatically in any rehabilitation program for maximum benefit, especially since chemical “hooks” affect a far smaller percentage of the addicted population than was previously thought.
Of course, this discovery has enormous implications for people struggling with drug addiction. When we take them out of society and throw them in jail, which only increases their disconnection and isolation from the world, how can we blame them for not recovering? Perhaps it’s time for a different approach.
At the same time, the more technologically advanced our world seems to get, the more distant we become from each other. We’ve fallen into the habit of constantly emailing and texting each other instead of picking up the phone and experiencing the warmth of a friend’s or loved one’s voice. Technology increases communication, but not connection. It transfers information, but not emotion, and that’s what our hearts respond to and endear us to one another. How many children spend hours each day playing video games instead of interacting with their families? How many families actually have dinner together anymore? How many neighbors on your street can you name and claim that you know on a personal basis? It’s time to make it a priority to create a more engaged, social, supportive, and close-knit society just like Dr. Alexander’s Rat Park—one that’s less divided by electronic filters and isolation, because the opposite of addiction isn’t sobriety; it’s connection.
For more health insights from Dr. Sadeghi, please visit beingclarity.com to sign up for the monthly newsletter or check out his annual health and well-being journal, MegaZEN here. For daily messages of encouragement and humor, follow him on Instagram at @drhabibsadeghi.