One version of Rat Park, Snake River above Lewiston, ID, 2007
One of the more interesting and profound experiments done on the power of connection was in the Rat Park addiction studies by Bruce Alexander, a professor of psychology at Simon Fraser University, in British Columbia. Alexander set out to show that our view of addiction, framed as either a.) a moral failing, where the individual doesn’t have the ‘moral fiber’ (whatever that means) or personal character to face the world, and so self-pleasures themselves in a destructive spiral using harmful drugs, or b.) a genetic condition or disease that predisposes them to using drugs in an abusive fashion, causing a downward spiral of self-destruction, was fundamentally incorrect — and actually neither of those things. To prove these were not major factors, Alexander created Rat Park — a social system of rats subject to addictive potentials, and watched the results.
Readers of this blog will recognize a mix of v-Memes inherent in a.) and b.). Moral fiber sounds kind of legalistic, but it’s really magical thinking — no one can really define it, though, at some levels it may be associated with following some tenets of society. “You know it when you see it” — when I hear this, I immediately start wondering about egocentric projection. One person’s moral fiber might be someone else’s mush.
As for b.), an individual with some genetic condition or disease? That’s definitely more able to be diagnosed. There are benchmarks that can be measured, and an algorithm that can be followed in determining if someone is an addict. Meet conditions 1,2,3. You’re an addict. And likely, if you believe the Legalistic Authoritarians, you got there through your own doing — by following another algorithm. Drill 20 holes in your arm, shoot up heroin, and voila! By the 21st, you’re baked — both literally and figuratively.
What’s the way out? Well, we have another algorithm — a 12 Step Program. Follow these rules, which start with admitting you have no personal agency (every 12 Step Program starts by the individual admitting they are powerless over the substance they are addicted to) and hand off your responsibility to a Higher Power. All 12 Step Programs are fascinating — and they’re not all bad, though their efficacy is highly overrated for the reasons that they give. But we’ll unpack those at a later time.
Where does this socially fragmented view of addiction come from? Remember Conway’s Law, that says the designed product, and through the Intermediate Corollary, the knowledge structure, will map to the social/relational structure of the designers. Add in that broader cultural understandings are almost always limited by the dominant v-Memes of a given society. Way back before we had anything resembling scientific reasoning, we had any kind of disease viewed as a moral failing or Divine Punishment, mapping back to the extremely old Magical v-Meme of Original Sin. Pretty powerful stuff.
The idea of a medical condition involving addiction evolved more recently, predicated on experiments involving isolated rats in a cage. The fundamental idea behind those experiments was a rat was placed alone in a cage, and given two choices — a bottle of regular water, and a bottle of water laced with cocaine and opium. In only a short while, the rat would drink only from the opium-laced bottle, and basically drink itself to death. Needless to say, there was pretty limited empathetic connection between the rat and the researcher — and not only for the fact that the researcher wasn’t patting the rat.
But the experiment had all the things that good science likes — repeatability and reliability, as well as the consequent status elevation — being able to be published in a prestigious journal. Any effect of the social isolation of the rat was discounted — it’s only a rat, after all. And the rats all lined up in their cages weren’t too far off from the social structure of a standard university faculty office suite.
Entering Stage Left was Bruce Alexander, the aforementioned psychology professor. Alexander questioned the very basis of the study. Rats don’t live like that, he said, and besides, we line up people in hospitals every day, and give all sorts of patients powerful opiates. After they exit the hospital and go back to their families, they don’t become addicts. If we really want to study addiction with rats, Alexander said, we have to create something more normative for rats — Rat Park.
Rat Park was set up by Alexander and his researchers to represent kind of a rat paradise. There were other rats, plenty of food, some places to play and raise litters of baby rats — and no one to eat them. In this environment, the rats thrived. And when offered opiate-laced concoctions, the rats, for the most part, turned them down — even rats that had been formerly addicted and dumped into Rat Park. The video below is a great description of both current theories of addiction, as well as Alexander’s alternate theory. Highly recommended!
Alexander attempted to get his article published in the famous journal Nature, but in the end was rejected. His original article was published in a smaller journal, Psychopharmacology . You can read all about it on Wikipedia, as well as Dr. Alexander’s own website. There’s a lot more to the story, with Alexander’s research on cocaine addiction, that basically backed up the Rat Park results, being suppressed by the World Health Organization after being pressured by the US representatives.
Alexander’s own statement on addiction is below, from his web page, and fascinating in its own right.
Global society is drowning in addiction to drug use and a thousand other habits. This is because people around the world, rich and poor alike, are being torn from the close ties to family, culture, and traditional spirituality that constituted the normal fabric of life in pre-modern times. This kind of global society subjects people to unrelenting pressures towards individualism and competition, dislocating them from social life.
He backs up his thesis that addiction is flourishing from separation in society — of a collapse of what this blog calls Externally Defined Relationships. Yet at the same time, in this article, testimony to the Canadian Senate, he states that addiction has been in decline since the end of the 19th Century. It’s plainly obvious that tribal societies have made no great gains in the last century. How can one both appreciate Alexander’s contribution, while at the same time understand why Alexander would make statements that so directly contradict his position? What makes such obviously erudite individuals make claims that they then contradict?
A Classic Evolution of Understanding
Let’s stop and sum up a little. Understanding our understanding (meta-understanding!) of addiction requires us to both understand the methods we use for gathering information, the information itself, and the social/relational empathetic structure of the researcher/observer. We can use the tools in this blog to understand exactly the progression of knowledge — if we can accept that, first, that it IS a progression. And as with all progressions, there are two v-Meme directions that this progressive understanding can follow.
The first is more familiar to us — horizontal progression. In the case of most of our ways of understanding, this is a process of refinement of both time and spatial scale, across a given social/relational structure, coupled with the energetics of the measurement. Nothing exemplifies this more than our understanding of something like the strength of steel. We start by looking at a hunk of steel, and quantifying its various strengths, elasticities, fracture toughness and such. Over time, we develop finer and finer tools that enable examination of steel on finer and finer scales. With electron microscopes, we finally get down to the nano-scale and beyond. No conflict of social/relational values is immediately present — we mostly stay within the same social/relational, as well as knowledge structures, and we’re more than happy to let scientists in the same v-Meme argue about this at metallurgy meetings. As long as the steel bridge doesn’t break, then we’re all happy.
Not so much with vertical v-Meme progression. Now, as our understanding changes, we start having v-Meme conflicts — fundamental, different ways our social/relational structures perceive the same object or issue. Yet at the same time when these conflicts are generated, if we cannot understand empathetic evolution, our solutions are prone to go memetically backward, to a time when we perceived those problems didn’t exist. The reality is that it’s hard to know — especially in the case of drug addiction. But we project away if we have no sense of that evolutionary process.
With drug addiction, as a larger culture, we started out down at the Magical v-Meme. Flawed individuals use drugs, and deserved whatever they get. When viewed as a moral failing, after all, and with the incumbent low-empathy level v-Memes, its easy to cast addicts into the Out-group. They were disconnected from society, anyway. God tells us what happens to sinners.
Then we evolved — a little. The Legalistic Authoritarians — famous ones, from Harvard! — got a hold of the problem. Fragmented Authoritarian social structures are still going to view drug addiction as a flaw of an individual — not the system, because there is little awareness that there is a system. Authoritarians simply don’t have that level of connectivity in their thinking. So they set up experiments that modeled how they viewed the problem — largely to confirm their hypotheses. Low on metacognition, they drew hard boundaries around those individual rats. They’re rats, after all — no one has proven they have feelings, or are sophisticated social animals. Then they gave them a choice — morphine, or water. I personally find it fascinating that the only way the rats’ response is described by these folks is ‘pleasure’ from the morphine — not an attempt to ease their pain, which is, of course, what almost all mammals feel when isolated. It’s not obvious that they thought of this potential effect– or the larger implications of NOT thinking about this — at all.
And why would they? We can see the Principle of Reinforcement come into play, with the social structure of the researchers, along with the dispensation of metacognition. Not only do they still not admit what they don’t know — they burnished their status by supporting large-scale government policy initiatives that have turned entire countries in our world into war zones over this. Does anyone need reminding about the War on Drugs?
Yet, as odd as it sounds, this was an empathetic progression — an expansion of In-group status to addicts. Addicts now were declared “not responsible” for their addiction at some level. Instead of being on the Outside of the social structure, they were allowed provisional acceptance. Treatment was in the hands of professionals, and moral blessing would be applied if the addict would surrender all agency to a 12-Step Program. This was better than being cast to the curb — though the lack of consequential thinking, and limitations of spatial and temporal scale failed to impress on decision makers. The people supplying the drugs were now the subject of moral approbation — as long as they were illegal. They, not the addicts, were sentenced to a lower position on the evolutionary chart — evil men — by the power of the Legalistic Authoritarians. A new Out Group was formed — and an expanded War was started.
Along comes Dr. Alexander. It’s hard to know what he originally thought — perhaps he was bothered by the larger status of addicts in society. But it’s possible that he felt emotional empathy toward the rats in the cages. Maybe he observed their social order and felt that the whole scenario just wasn’t right — more of a pure legalistic/absolutistic thought. I’ve actually written to him, and will be interested in his response! He created his experiment, and attempted to publish his results.
Not surprisingly, the Authoritarians pushed back. Reliability is the stock in trade in science — the entire university system is constructed around supporting this aspect of the Authoritarian v-Meme. And Alexander had not just constructed a Rat Park. He had constructed an empathetic Rat System — an aggregated Collective Rat Intelligence. Not only had Alexander violated one taboo — saying that a system of actors would influence the agency of an individual. He also told a non-empathetic community that empathetic connection was likely the factor that would prevent the problem they had already prescribed with an Authoritarian solution. He told them that their proposed solution — jails for the Out-Group — all those people selling drugs, wouldn’t make a difference. And the proposed treatment for the sympathetic In-Group likely wasn’t effective. The idea that empathetic connection is the critical factor in solving addiction is still unfathomable to most people — and certainly never occurred to the original addiction researchers.
Alexander didn’t give up. As a progressive change agent, his persistence was in his favor. By continuing with his work, he gave it more reliability. Alexander went on to write a book on his attempt at not just coming up with a reliable answer — but a valid one as well.
Yet in his book, The Globalization of Addiction, he, too, rails on the v-Memes above his level of processing. In the passage quoted above, he too downgrades the Performance/Achievement v-Meme. Without an empathetic evolutionary understanding that there might be a higher level of connectedness possible (a more comprehensive Communitarianism, but not achieved yet!) he falls into the same v-Meme conflict trap. And at the same time, he ignores his own data regarding population levels of addiction. Alexander identifies empathetic connection as the key to providing the connection that prevents members of a community from becoming addicts. But at the same time, he fails to see how that connection manifests outside of already societally and culturally defined relationships that, like it or not, are in decline. And as anyone from a dysfunctional family can tell you, they have their own set of problems.
Make no mistake — Bruce Alexander should be lauded for his heroic work in exposing so much of current understanding as a myth. But there are also critical factors that Alexander misses. One of the major ones is this. If it is true that empathetic relational formation in systems drives recovery from addiction, or prevents it altogether, we must appreciate that relational disruption, and those anti-empathetic individuals that drive it in relational systems also are a major cause of addiction. And if we’re serious about controlling addiction and other pathological behaviors, we have to also be serious about understanding how relational disruption works in our families, homes and workplaces. In the end, it all comes back to empathy.