Interlude — Addiction as an Elephant Wrapped in Spaghetti, and Dopamine Transfer Explained by a Dummy

Lower Salmon Toad BeachAnother version of Rat Park — Toad Beach on the Lower Salmon, Gary MacFarlane, Photo (with my camera!)

After reading the last post, you’re likely wondering what intellectual rabbit I’m planning on pulling out of my hat to explain how Rat Park informs us of how we should structure work environments for optimal productivity and creativity.  Here’s the simple version, for those that are waiting with bated breath.  Keep everyone safe, well-fed and happy, and in plain view, and you really cut down on the opportunity for relational disruptors to terrorize people.  Optimize connection, as well as appropriate alone time, and let the experiment run.  For more than that, you’ll have to wait until the next post.

One of the things I’ve mentioned before about v-Meme analysis is that while Spiral Dynamics as a whole can give us an overview of how we perceive our larger problems, it does not mean that individual v-Meme levels can’t inform critical understandings of essential parts.  Everyone — literally everyone, even your gaslighting psychopaths — possess an element of the truth.  The challenge of the manager is in the integration of both data and patterns, while being aware of their own perspective.  Rat Park may indeed give us a larger, say 10,000′ view of how addiction functions. At the same time, once we understand the system boundaries of the lower-level v-Memes, we can figure out the truth that those researchers that may even be anti-Rat Park are telling us, and strategize across the different temporal and spatial scales.

At the same time you’re appreciating your more detail-minded friends, you have to guess a functional, system-level description of how things actually work.  And here’s the rub — that guess may be all that we start with, or live with for a while.  Because setting up a fine-scale experiment to determine absolute truth may be impossible.

When researching the Rat Park phenomenon, one of the things I found on Wikipedia was the general agreement that the mesolimbic pathway is the nerve pathway primarily affected by opiate addiction.  (In case you wonder what intrigues me on a Sunday afternoon… 🙂  What the heck is the mesolimbic pathway anyway?  It’s one of the dopaminergic pathways in the brain, that move dopamine around in the system — the stuff that regulates our mood and modulates our reward behavior and emotional response to others.  In other words, a key element of empathy.  The mesolimbic pathway is also, interestingly, very short.  It starts out touching the spinal cord, cuts across the limbic center, and then branches out in the very bottom of the prefrontal cortex.  See the figure from Wikipedia if you’re curious.  I can’t figure out how to insert it in the blog!

Here’s the key thing.  It’s short.  It goes from the top of the Spinal cord, across a little real estate in the limbic system, and then touching the prefrontal cortex — the shortest way to connect all three systems of the triune brain.  Evolutionarily, it’s a core function, and likely one of the first to evolve.  Now if it just connected to the vagus nerve — that empathy backbone connecting the lower body systems up to the face muscles.  And, not surprisingly, it very well may.  This is recent research by a team in Poland.

So one of the things we know functionally is that heroin and its cohort are drugs that head straight for the empathy circuit.  Or humans take heroin BECAUSE that circuit isn’t working right, or isn’t getting what it needs.  The neuroscientific, small scale analysis tells us that heroin addiction is actually something that occurs because of a lack of connection!

Now, why that lack of connection is happening is not so simple.  Perhaps, there’s a genetic abnormality that prevents connection.  Perhaps trauma has so flooded those neural circuits with cortisol, the hormone released during stress and trauma, that the circuit is busted.  Perhaps the individual is isolated for reasons beyond their control, by either a larger societal mechanism –they’re in jail, or at war, or something.  Or perhaps this person is being abused and isolated by an HCP/empathy-disordered individual.

As we start peeling off the layer, it’s actually the core insight by the Authoritarian Legalists that gives us the starting point for exploring the effect of higher-level v-Memes.  The main thing that shows the Authoritarians’ bias, though, because of their perspective generated by their social structure, is the idea that the majority of people are self-pleasuring.  It is far more likely that they are taking opiates because they are in pain.

I’ve used the metaphor of understanding sentient evolution by borrowing from the old story of the five old blind men and the elephant.  The reality is that once you get far enough away from the elephant, you will likely recognize that you’re looking at an elephant — if you’re not blind.  What does Spiral Dynamics also tell you?  You also then realize that the elephant is wrapped in spaghetti.  Everything is connected to everything else.

A multi-scale analysis of addiction leads to similar problems of causation.  Dopaminergic pathways are disrupted in addicts.  They may have gotten there through a defect of moral character.  But they likely had a genetic predisposition for addiction, and couldn’t quickly recover.  They may have been cut off from their community for their behavior, but certainly possible, some traumatic experience happened that started the downward cycle of isolation, and severely short-circuited their chances for personal evolution out of the crisis.

How to understand what to do next?  We can go back to the Principle of Reinforcement, that says there is a self-similar loop of causation — a coupled system — between individual and social structure.  If someone is addicted, we can both help the individual’s biology (maybe with methadone or buproprione) and at the same time create supportive community that allows the addict to process their past trauma, and restore an empathetic ability to reconnect with others.

But if you really want to fix your larger addiction problem from a population perspective, the whole society’s going to have to be on board.  Addicts make up a percentage of a given population, and that population functions in the way that it does because of the whole elephant.  In U.S. society, we’ve accepted social dislocation, stress, and economic wealth redistribution toward the top.  Though my personal opinion is that this is an absolutely crazy way to run a larger society, the society makes the consensus, with all the various dynamics and factors that come into play.  That means we also have to accept that there is going to be a transient population moving in and out of addictive behaviors as their circumstances change in the stressful world we live in. We can, and should do better.

But until we figure out our larger evolutionary goals, the last thing society as a whole should do is wage war on the more helpless victims involved with the system.  The trauma and isolation from those actions aren’t going to get us anywhere — except in the creation of more patients.

Takeaways:  If we want to stop individual phenomena like addiction, it would behoove us to consider the social aspects of how individual biological phenomena manifest.  

Further reading:  Forget the New York Times crossword puzzle!  Read the Wikipedia article on dopamine!  So much cross-functional and synthetic thinking possible!  The secrets to why nicotine is so bad, and heroin not-so-much from an individual perspective are buried within.  Plus a ton of other stuff.  

3 thoughts on “Interlude — Addiction as an Elephant Wrapped in Spaghetti, and Dopamine Transfer Explained by a Dummy

  1. I assume this post is referring to Chasing the Scream by Johann Hari, right? He discusses addiction, isolation, and the rat park study. One conclusion of his always stands out to me. The addict is the ultimate individual, as they’ve replaced relationships with drugs. They can soothe themselves. And that once again brings me back to Julian Jaynes’ distinction between archaic authorization and self-authorization.

    I’ve speculated that addiction and individuality have been inseparable for millennia. What stands out about the Axial Age is not only the rise of individualism but also the emergence of many new addictive plant foods that were being used in agriculture, combined with how agriculture was finally becoming large-scale and so allowed a high-carb diet for large populations.


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