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cocaine and the rat park

Interesting piece in the Huffington Post on some new thinking about the causes of addiction. It’s interesting for actors because it throws into relief the central place that the need for social connection and belonging occupies in understanding why people do what they do, which is a subject I have written about extensively.

Briefly, if a researcher put a lone rat in a cage with a choice between water laced with cocaine and water, he would fixate on the cocaine water and become an addict.

But put him in the Rat Park,

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.

and a funny thing happened:

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.

These are rats, though, not people, right? Not so fast:

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.

I have heard a different explanation of why these soldiers successfully shook the addiction than the one being pushed here, but this result viewed in light of the rat experiments and the other results described in the article underline that the need for human beings to feel a sense of belonging and connection to a social world is so strong that they will go to self-destructive lengths to compensate if they are deprived of this connection. That’s how strong the need is. And that is the need that we try to touch and leverage in scene work at Andrew Wood.