Rat addicts and the science of addiction

Much of the modern medical conception of addiction is based on animal studies performed during the 1960s and 70s.  In the experiments, a needle was placed into the leg of a caged rat.  The intravenous apparatus was connected to a lever in the cage that administered a drug, generally either cocaine or heroin.  The rats soon learned that by pressing the button they would get a dose of the drug, and the rats were soon ‘addicted’.  They pressed the button continually, ignoring food sources, sometimes until death.  When the drug was withdrawn, the rats would go through characteristic withdrawal symptoms – anxiety, jumpiness, sleeplessness, etc.

Such a video can be seen here in a recent National Geographic special, in this case a meth experiment: http://www.smokingmeth.net/

These experiments were done on various species, such as monkeys, with similar results.  They had a profound impact on the medical and psychological community in terms of the understanding of addiction.   Basically the drug is too powerful to resist, and soon the animal has lost all free will, to the extent it would choose the drug over the basic life instincts.  If the drug were legal, humans would quickly surrender en masse to the power of the drug, creating an army of drug crazed zombies.  I remember seeing these experiments as a child, amazed by the power of the drugs, and thinking that if it can happen to other animals then it can happen to humans as well.  Of course it should be illegal.

However, these experiments were debunked by Bruce Alexander of Simon Fraser University in Vancouver, Canada.  In the 1970s he performed a series of experiments that showed that if you place rats in a reasonably natural environment (as opposed to isolating it in a cage), the rat would behave basically normally in the presence of the drug.  The caged rats took approximately 20 times the amount of the drug than the free rats, who lived in a habitat known as ‘Rat Park’:


When in the presence of other rats and a normally interesting environment (e.g. tin cans and play wheels), the rats showed very little appetite for heroin, even if they were caged and force fed the heroin for 2 months prior, and were otherwise addicted.  After a period of withdrawal, they returned to normal.

Thus addiction is not a behavior caused by the drug.  It is a behavior caused by the stressful environment, and the drug is used to relieve the stress.  To extrapolate to humans: if a human is tortured, he may turn to drugs to relieve the pain, but will stop once the torture is ended.  Whether or not this occurs (whether the person becomes ‘addicted’) is of course the issue here, but the point is that it can’t be inferred from the animal studies alone.  The animal studies would indicate that there is no drug addiction within a natural environment, and only temporary withdrawal symptoms in a stressful environment.  Therefore that there is no risk of widespread addiction if drugs were freely available.  Thus these animal studies alone supply no justification for the criminalization of drugs, and yet they were often used that way.  Millions of people were educated about drugs based on these faulty and misleading experiments.

Of course, many times people are in pain, and in fact this is considered one of the main pathways that ‘addiction’ develops.  A person goes to the doctor for medicine to relieve pain (e.g. back pain) and soon they are hopelessly addicted to the drug.  However, in this situation, according to the animal studies, the addiction should go away once the pain goes away (after perhaps a brief period of withdrawals).  Also, in general doctors believe that drugs taken for physical pain are much less likely to become addictive than if the user takes them recreationally.

As for the recreational user (the other main pathway to ‘addiction’), in most cases the user becomes uninterested after some time.  Others who use the drug habitually and are considered ‘addicted’, as I argue in this site, are not really addicted to the drug, but take it for fun and recreation, and to belong to a social group.  This can happen particularly if the user has little else of interest going on their lives, or is discouraged about his prospects in life. He takes the identity of the ‘addict’ because it rescues him from being cast as a ‘loser’ in society.  Although an addict is often considered a loser, at least it is considered a disease and therefore beyond the user’s control. Thus the addict does not have to take responsibility for his failures, in much the same way as a person with MS can blame the disease for his lack of physical prowess.  There is no shame in that.  Thus the addict’s only mistake was recklessly taking the drug in the first place, perhaps several times, before the addiction really took hold, and perhaps one can be forgiven for that.

The myth of addiction rests to a large extent on these faulty animal studies.  Beyond that, the myth is based on various forms of legal, educational, and artistic propaganda over the last 100 years.  For example, cinematically it took the form of movies such as “Reefer Madness” in the 50’s and “Requiem for Dream” in the 90’s, which taught people how to react to the drugs and how to act like an addict.  Beyond that, most people have little personal experience with drug addiction.  Although many people say that they know someone who is addicted, after their story is analyzed, it generally falls into one of the categories described in the articles of this site — complete fiction — someone pretending to be addicted for personal gain.  Often we don’t ask the relevant questions for fear of hurting their feelings.  For example, we don’t want to tell the wife that the husband married her only to obtain a stable environment for procuring and using drugs, and not for love as evinced.  Instead we say the husband was ‘addicted to drugs/alcohol’ and he abused her due to his addiction, and not because he was selfish and despised her and the marriage was a sham.

Every addiction story falls apart under scrutiny.

7 thoughts on “Rat addicts and the science of addiction”

  1. I need to point out to you something glaringly obvious. Your subtitle, The best of 60’s Science Fiction, is unforgivingly inaccurate. Shame on you!!

    Robert Anson Heinlein wrote the BEST science fiction in the 60s. For an undisputed, thoroughly documented, factualization of the World’s View on Heinlein, see http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Robert_A._Heinlein

    That being said, Rat Park is one of my favorites. For me, the only thing worse than a real alcoholic is a powerless rat that has fallen pray to the cunning, powerful and baffling, push-ups in the parking lot, chronic and progressive, disease of consuming copious amounts of alcohol.

    Just can’t seem to help themselves.

  2. Correction: “Reefer Madness” was released in the 1930s, not the 1950s.

    But you are very right about media-influenced addiction narratives in general. It’s interesting, isn’t it, how 12-step propaganda infects people who have nothing to do with illegal substances and never get drunk just through media indoctrination. Take a look at your local gift shop, for heaven’s sake. You see coffee mugs with slogans like “one day at a time,” “let go and let God,” “serenity,” etc. I have had people throw crap at me in the wake of unhappy life events totally unrelated to substance abuse (I am straight edge) such as “fear is false evidence appearing real,” “give your problems to God,” “anxiety is stinking thinking,” and so forth. I was not told that the speaker in question was a member of the 12 steps until much later, and I was never told that that was where their thoughts (such as they are) had come from. Very deceitful. And yes, everything I thought I knew about addiction and society came from “The Lost Weekend,” “The Man With the Golden Arm,” “Cheers,” “Less Than Zero,” and books by Louise Penny and Lisa See. Crap. All pure and utter crap.

    Sorry for the somewhat disjointed rant, but I am sick of this society and the media can bite me. It’s good that you are showing people the man behind the curtain, so to speak.

    1. That’s how I felt when I started investigating this. Like I had ‘peered behind the curtain’. What I wonder now is whether ‘the man’ knows he’s ‘behind the curtain’ so to speak. Because it seems like they are each pursuing their own mini-agendas (to protect their various franchises) without understanding the big picture. But surely someone out there is orchestrating the show.

      When I started this I thought that ‘addicts’ were consciously lying. Now I know they are completely unaware of their self-deception. Thus my strategy is to ‘inoculate’ people against the brainwashing in the first place.

  3. I Can Tell You, My Addiction ‘Story’ , As You Call It, Will Stand Up To Any Scrutiny. I Cannot Believe That This Website Actually Exists. You Are A Moron. I Could Go On, But You Are Obviously So Narcissistic That Nothing I, Or Anyone Else Says Will Penetrate Your Obviously Out-Of-Control Ego. For Whatever Reason (Probably Because I Am Somewhat Of A Moron Myself, As Far Computers Go), I Cannot Write Properly On This Site. But Please, E-Mail me Sometime, And I Will Gladly Undergo Any ‘Scrutiny’ You Can Throw My Way.

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