To Put the Rat Back in the Rat Park

The environment we live in and that we help to create, individually and collectively, is more powerful than we can comprehend. We are just beginning to scratch the surface of this understanding.

Modern life has isolated us to such an extent that we forgot that humans are social by nature. There are no individuals as isolated islands and to think that way is self-destructive. Individuals are mere expressions of society, each of us a particular manifestation of a shared humanity. To separate the individual from society is to attempt to capture a wave in a bottle by filtering out the water.

The addict is the ultimate individual. Within his addiction, he is alone. This is the ideal of our atomized society.

Still, there are always other choices. The threat to society isn’t the drug addict, but the addictive mentality. We are addicted to our isolation, not realizing that it is our isolation that makes us and keeps us addicted. Addiction contributes to a sense of fatalism and hopelessness, that we have no choice, but we always have choice.

This self-destructive society was created by us and it can be uncreated by us. There are many possibilities that we could create in its place. However, first, we must acknowledge our responsibility as members of of this society. We have to allow ourselves to feel the wound of disconnection so that we can be reminded that underlying it is the longing for human relationship.

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The Likely Cause of Addiction Has Been Discovered, and It Is Not What You Think
By Johann Hari, Huffington Post

One of the ways this theory was first established is through rat experiments — ones that were injected into the American psyche in the 1980s, in a famous advert by the Partnership for a Drug-Free America. You may remember it. 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 Alexandernoticed 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. (The full references to all the studies I am discussing are in the book.) [ . . . ]

The writer George Monbiot has called this “the age of loneliness.” We have created human societies where it is easier for people to become cut off from all human connections than ever before. Bruce Alexander — the creator of Rat Park — told me that for too long, we have talked exclusively about individual recovery from addiction. We need now to talk about social recovery — how we all recover, together, from the sickness of isolation that is sinking on us like a thick fog.

Just Punish; Don’t Try to Help or Understand

Here are two videos that show the problem with extreme rightwing thinking. When the world is seen through absolutist morality, everything becomes black and white and every person becomes either good or evil. Taken to the furthest extreme of fundamentalism, this attitude becomes a Manichaean vision of Cosmic War.

It’s what led someone like Bush to think he was on a mission from God and that fighting the terrorists was a crusade. It’s an attitude that doesn’t allow for compromise and makes bipartisanship impossible. If you think Obama is a Commie, a Nazi and/or the Anti-Christ, you don’t seek agreement with the person who you believe is destroying all that is good in America and in the world. This attitude goes back to the beginning of modern movement conservatism. Barry Goldwater, who believed in an unchanging Law of God, said:

“I would remind you that extremism in the defense of liberty is no vice. And let me remind you also that moderation in the pursuit of justice is no virtue!”
(source: “Goldwater and Pseudo-Conservative Politics”, Richard Hofstadter)

What is interesting about this kind of statement is that it resonates with what Muslim terrorists preach.

I was impressed that the guy at the 5:00 mark made a very intelligent and insightful point while everyone else was just trying to turn it into yet another partisan story. I’m always shocked when someone who is actually fair and balanced gets on Fox News.

Is O’Reilly clueless? If addicts are successfully treated, drug demand decreases. If drug demand decreases, the drug black market decreases. If the drug black market decreases, drug trafficking across the border decreases. If drug trafficking decreases, violence against Americans decreases. Conservatives need to look at real data. Dealing with drug addicts directly is more successful & cheaper than dealing with the results afterwards. Like abstinence only education, the Drug war is a failure.

Conservatives need to think of this the way they think about guns. Not all countries with high gun ownership rates have high gun violence rates. A large percentage of gun violence is from illegal guns and so illegalizing or more tightly controlling gun ownership doesn’t by itself solve the problem of gun violence. Similarly, in countries where drugs are legal and where there are easily available drug addiction programs, drug use and addiction are lower than in the US.

Re: Time to turn against cannabis!

Keith E Rice’s blog post titled Time to turn against cannabis!

My comments:

I hadn’t heard of this research. I love research because it can disprove commonly accepted ‘facts’, but I’m always suspicious of how research gets interpreted. The obvious question that arises in my mind is whether people with certain personlity and/or genetic predispositions are more likely to smoke marijuana. Maybe people who have a predisposition to schizophrenia also have a predisposition to experimenting with drugs and so the correlation may or may not be causation.

For example, Ernest Hartmann has written about the relationship between dreams and schizophrenia in terms of thin boundary types. One trait that thin boundary types have is an openness to experience and so they’re more likely to experiment in general.

The question is how many people who become schizophrenic after cannabis use would’ve become schizophrenic whether or not they’d used cannabis? Does the cannabis cause or contribute to schizophrenia? That question still hasn’t been answered. More careful research is required.

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I must admit that I don’t have that strong opinion about marijuana per se.  I just have a negative reaction to the lies and propaganda I was spoon-fed growing up.  It’s hard to know what is true when you were never given the truth.  For example, this meta-analysis had an obvious bias.  The data was being interpeted to a specific ideological conclusion.  I say just give me the data and don’t tell me what it means.  I’m fine with presenting me with the various ways of interpreting it.  I do think there is a decent chance that it might contribute to schizophrenia and so the authorities should say that in an honest way.  It’s possible to simplify information so as to effectively communicate without turning it into lies and propaganda.

Yeah, marijuana has risks but so do lots of legal substances which have dangerous side effects when misused or not supervised carefully by a doctor.  Marijuana also has medical benefits.  That is why you legalize it so that people using it for medical purposes get medical supervision. Sure, people will still use it incorrectly, but that is true for every other legal medication.  Every substance that is prescribed by a doctor can also be bought on the street.  In fact, some legally prescribed drugs are very popular in college and highschool.  Kids illegally sell their legal prescriptions all of the time.  You can’t stop illegal distribution of drugs (whether or not the drugs are legal), but you can decrease the dangers by not lying to people.  Making generalizations that are simplified truths are fine.  Lying is never acceptable.

I don’t think everyone can handle everything.  For one, that is why you legalize it in order to put it in the realm of public knowledge and accountability.  Many people do listen to their doctors and other authority figures, but people lose trust in authorities when they’re lied to.  Drugs bought on the street are even more dangerous because you don’t necessarily know what you’re buying.  As far as I know, there is no evidence that legalizing marijuana increases its use.  You simply decrease the number of people being in prison.  Prohibition proved the truth of this.

I understand your general argument, but it’s a slippery slope.  Why stop with cannabis?  People do all kinds of things that are immensely unhealthy (physically and mentally).  The most unhealthy addictive drug man has ever invented is refined sugar which kills massive numbers of people and leads even more to miserable lives of a wide variety of diseases and disabilities.  Fast food is probably a bigger killer than smoking and alcohol combined.  People make bad decisions all of the time that quickly or slowly destory their lives.  I’d be fine with illegalizing all unhealthy and dangerous activities if it actually stopped those activities, but it doesn’t.  Marijuana is illegal and yet people keep using it.

By the time of college, around half of people report having tried marijuana and about half of those report being current users.  However, I don’t know if this takes into account the massive under-reporting.  According to under-reporting estimates, 41 million Americans use marijuana annually.  The drug war has failed.  Lies and propaganda have failed.  Why not try a different approach?

So, I say prove to me that illegalization and scare tactics work because all evidence seems to be to the contrary.  The government has already tried for several decades of “lurid front page headlines about the dangers of using cannabis” and they failed.  Cannabis use increased during that time of endless propaganda.  I saw that kind of propaganda growing up.  It didn’t stop me and it didn’t stop most of my peers.  I’m for whatever works, whatever helps people.  I’m just against ideology.  It’s similar to people who promote abstinence programs even though they increase the number of pregnancies and STDs.  Personally, I believe results are more important than ideology.  Show me the results.  It’s not about what people can handle.  It’s about what works.

There actually is an argument for propaganda.  It does work when all avenues of information are controlled.  For example, China has been very successful with propaganda because it tightly controls all media.  The problem is such control isn’t possible in a democracy.  Propaganda also works during times of extreme fear such as war, but it’s almost impossible to uphold a constant state of fear and probably isn’t desirable.  The thing is that kids these days are media saavy.  They don’t just accept what they’re told.  If you tell them one thing, they’ll search for opposing viewpoints and they’ll ask their friends.  If they learn they’ve been lied to or been told partial truths, then the propaganda will have an opposite effect than was intended.  Propaganda is a hard thing to do well.

Why do you think marijuana use increased during the largest anti-drug propaganda program the US government has ever implemented?  It wasn’t for a lack of trying nor was it for a lack of good intentions.

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You said something that caught my attention.

“So simplifications/generalisations/lies-based-on-truth can work. I think there will be whole load of factors which give us the zeitgeist – the spirit of the times.”

Attitudes can be changed, but I’m not sure exactly what changes them.

Why has the attitude about cigarettes changed so quickly?  It’s really hard to explain.  How does something switch from being socially acceptable to being socially unacceptable in such a short period of time?  Second-hand smoke is bad, but so are many things such as second-hand car exhaust… the latter being far worse for one’s health.  Why do cities build large parking ramps in the middle of town to encourage the concentration of car exhaust in the very concentration of the human population.  Why don’t they instead build parking ramps far away from populated areas and encourage public transporation?  I don’t own a car and so aren’t my rights being infringed in the way a non-smokers rights are being infringed sitting next to a smoker?

There are all kinds of things that are far worse than second-hand smoke.  Maybe the lies-founded-on-truth of the anti-tobacco lobbies worked because of effective campaigning that had nothing directly to do with facts.  They touched upon people’s emotions and other psychological motivations which are largely unconscious.  They made it uncool, but the facts were secondary.  If you know what you’re doing, people can be easy to manipulate sometimes (there is a lot of research studying this).  That is what advertising is about.  If companies couldn’t influence people to do things they wouldn’t otherwise do, then there’d be no advertising.  Campaigning, like advertising, actually works best when you bypass people’s rational response.  If you present facts, they’re only a facade to hide the true mechanisms of manipulation.  However, if the campaign lies about the facts and gets caught, then the manipulation will backfire.

Sadly, humans aren’t primarily rational and the change in public opinion isn’t rational either.  As I metioned, I think fastfood and junkfood are the biggest killer of any substances in the world.  If we were worried about public health, it would be illegal to buy fastfood and junkfood for kids.  But peole cherish their freedoms (and their habits and addictions) and will fight if you try to take them away.  The worst health hazards never get changed because they involve too many people.  If you can get the majority of people addicted to your substance such as sugar or if you can get the majority to use it on a regular basis such as alcohol, then you can ensure it will never be made illegal or that it won’t remain illegal for long because of public demand.

“As regards, alcohol, while it is still the most popular drug of all, certainly amongst the late teens/early twenties I meet either through family or school networks are very strongly anti-drink driving and they almost unanimously assure me their friends and acquaintances are of a similar mind. Drink-driving just isn’t cool! And now I see it starting to spread quite strongly amongst my own age group (45-50), often considered in the UK previously the most hard-to-shift group.”

This might be where it’s important to consider how generational cohorts play a part in change in attitudes.  But it’s important to keep in mind that generational shifts in attitude don’t always last beyond a specific generation.  There has been a campaign against drunk driving and it’s been effective.  The reason it’s worked is probably because it didn’t use lies and misinformation like was done with the anti-drug campaign.  It also touched upon the power of peer pressure.  Nobody wants to be uncool or to be judged.  This is particularly true for kids of the Millenial Generation which seem to put greater emphasis on peer influence than some previous generations.

I should add that I work in a parking ramp near bars where college kids congregate.  It may be true that drunk driving is less cool than it used to be, but trust me there are still a lot of drunk drivers.  It’s surprising that I see so many drunk drivers on a regular basis considering the legal ramifications of getting caught.  I’d be curious about the statistics about how much drunk driving has actually decreased.