Do we really understand addiction?

By Alex Moss

Chances are we all have a vice. From the big stuff, be it drugs or alcohol, to the little stuff like Reality TV, sugar or…. put that phone down. In other words, it doesn’t matter if you have an addictive personality, you probably have some sort of obsession, however benign.

In an insightful if potentially controversial TED Talk Johann Hari, who has a family history of addiction, believes that “almost everything we think we know about addiction is wrong”. The essence of what we know about addiction is that by taking a chemical substance, or receiving stimulation that results in a chemical reaction in the brain, we become addicted to it, because our brain stops making the chemical and therefore we need the external stimulant to fill the void.

What if addiction is about your cage?

Hari believes that this theory is flawed and based on evidence that he considers is outdated. Hari asks: what about those people who have operations and require morphine to help with the pain for prolonged periods of time. Do they become addicts? No. If they did, anyone who has ever had to receive pain relief medication would be in trouble. Similarly Hari notes that many Vietnam War veterans were taking drugs while in Vietnam but were able to stop once they returned home.

So what gives? Have we been looking at addiction all wrong? Part of this comes down to an experiment conducted early in the 20th century. It saw a rat placed in a cage with two water bottles: one with just water, the other laced with cocaine. Before long the rat was only drinking the cocaine laced water and subsequently overdosing.

Almost everything we think we know about addiction is wrong

But Professor of Psychology, Bruce Alexander, felt something was amiss. The rat was alone in that cage, he had no company, nothing to play with, nothing, in short, to entertain him. So Alexander recreated the experiment with the two water bottles but created what he called Rat Park. A large cage with toys, fellow rats and endless means of keeping them stimulated. As a result, none of the rats in Rat Park touched the water laced with cocaine.

With this in mind, could it be that we become addicted if we don’t have something to stimulate our minds? That without certain stimulations our brain needs something to fill the void? As Hari sums up, “What if addiction is about your cage?”

As humans, we have an innate need to bond with other people. When we cannot bond with others we bond with whatever else is around to occupy us. Maybe it’s a television show that taps into something we’re lacking, or social media which ‘fakes’ the sensation of interaction.

By becoming addicted to certain things we cease being present in our own lives, everything outside of that addiction becomes secondary. What we need is other people to bond with, to share our experiences with.

It’ll be your flesh and blood friends who you have deep and nuanced and textured…relationships with.

But we’re so well connected in the modern age, you cry. We’ve got all these modern forms of technology that allow us to be close to people. But do we really? As Hari illustrates, if you were in a crisis, when something terrible has happened, who is going to be there for you? Is it going to be your Twitter followers? Or perhaps that nice guy who always likes your Instagram posts? No, they’re people you don’t know outside the internet. As Hari says, ‘It’ll be your flesh and blood friends who you have deep and nuanced and textured, face-to-face relationships with’.

So the moral of the story? Perhaps we need real connections not ‘likes’ to stay addiction free and mentally healthy. What do you think? Does Hari make an interesting point or does it over-simplify an incredibly complicated issue?

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