How connection works as a treatment for addiction
The infamous rat park experiment taught us so much about connection as a treatment for addiction. But how can we translate the results of this experiment into real terms, and just how important is social interaction for those recovering from addiction?
We at Recoverlution feel that social interaction and connection with like-minded others are not only imperative to our well-being but that it is essential for our ongoing recovery.
Life is often out of our control. It can be unintentionally cruel and unjust in its nature. Life’s events can feel isolating.
When we implement connection as part of a treatment plan for addiction, we know we no longer have to face anything in life alone.
What the rat park taught us about connection & addiction
If you are familiar with the rat park experiment, you will understand just how important connection with others is. Not only is it vital to our social well-being but also to our physical, mental and emotional well-being.
So why is connection with like-minded others so essential in helping us move forwards in our recovery? Well, we know that when we have a common understanding and truly want the best for each other, we feel good about the people around us. But perhaps there is more to it than that. There is more...
Science and personal experience have taught us the importance of social connection as a treatment for assisting a healthy recovery from addiction. When we are able to connect, play, have fun and create a family-like environment (much like the rats were provided in the rat park), we are far less likely to want or need substances.
Why would we? When we are enjoying life and living it to the max?
Like the rat park, addiction treatment recovery groups encourage us to connect
The results of the rat park experiment show us that socialisation plays a big role in our overall well-being and ability to enjoy life.
We not only have the American psychologist, Dr Bruce Alexander (who conducted the rat park experiment) to thank for recognising our need for social connection, but also the likes of 12-step fellowships such as Alcoholics Anonymous and other addiction support groups such as SMART Recovery.
One thing that all recovery support groups have in common is that they encourage those of us in recovery from addiction to come together, support, help and regularly connect with one another.
Let's look further into the aspect of social connection with regard to treatment for addiction.
The rats responded favourably to connection as a treatment for addiction
In the 1970s, Dr Alexander conducted a series of experiments on rats, which included the infamous rat park experiment. Rats, like us, are social creatures.
An initial experiment of keeping rats in an isolated ‘no frills’ cage with two water bottles, one laced with heroin or cocaine, the other not, led the rats to compulsively keep drinking from the drug-laced water bottles.
The isolated, bored and lonely rats repeatedly chose the drugs over the healthy, pure water, and chose it to their detriment. The rats consumed the drugs to the point where they eventually overdosed and died.
You may be thinking that by involving two highly addictive substances, the “choice” factor is removed. Surely, the rats will have developed a physical and psychological addiction to a drug that's easily accessible and unlimited, wouldn't anyone?
However, It is not as clear cut as that.
The rats were opting out of life
Further studies suggested that these poor animals, with no stimulation, no purpose, no comforts and no companions were doing more than just feeding a drug habit. The rats were opting out of life. Sound familiar?
Thankfully, Dr Alexander, also felt that this rat experiment fell short. Of course, the rats were going to choose the drugs to cope with their “existence”. There was literally nothing else for them to do, other than to continually get high.
Dr Alexander was quite rightly concerned by the fact that the rats had zero stimulation in the first rat experiment. These social creatures were kept in a tiny single cage with no toys, no interaction and none of their social needs being met.
He wanted to further investigate this aspect which he felt was a massive contributing factor to their compulsive drug taking and their consequent demise. With the social factor in mind, the experiment known as “The Rat park” was born.
The rat park was born
The rat park consisted of a cage approximately 200 times larger than the typical isolation cages used in the first experiment. Added to the cage were toys, balls, wheels, plenty of tasty food and space allocated for mating and raising baby rats.
Once the cage was complete, Dr Alexander then added 20 rats, made up of both genders. Finally, a pure water bottle and a morphine-laced water bottle were placed in the rat park cage.
Would the rats become addicted to the highly addictive substances once again? Would they destroy themselves with the drug-infused water?
Well, this time, the results couldn't have been more different...
The rats in the rat park chose life over drugs
The rats in the rat park experiment were far more interested in eating, playing, mating, fighting and socially interacting than they were in taking the drugs. In short, connection with their own kind worked as a treatment for preventing and stopping addiction.
Even the rats who had previously been drinking the heroin water, left it alone when moved into the rat park. Now that says something.
Not only were the rats choosing social connection and interaction over getting high, but they were also choosing life. The morphine interfered with this, so they showed little or no interest in it.
And, yes, we are far more complex creatures than rats and we do have far more choices than your average rat.
Obviously, addiction isn't purely down to a lack of social connection and stimulation, but there is strong evidence to support that it does not help.
Addiction was the solution to social disconnection
Let's now look at the rat park experiment and its relevance to us humans, something more relatable perhaps.
Many of us found a solution to what was missing within us in addiction.
Substances made us feel part of life. They made us feel more attractive, more charismatic, more relaxed, wittier, more confident, and more social. They made us (in essence) feel more than we felt for ourselves.
The tragedy of addiction is that in the end, the very thing that ‘helped’ us through life, eventually took everything it gave, and more.
Most of us who sought recovery from addiction did so because the pain of continuing as we were eventually becoming too much.
Many of us ended up isolated, broke, and physically and mentally damaged. We ended up, through our addiction, existing and no longer living.
Despite the tremendous cost, addiction still compelled us to engage in harmful substance use and behaviours. We had very little or no control over the damaging way of life we were living.
This takes me back to the first rat experiment...
So what is the answer?
When it comes to addiction, no one has all the answers. We can theorise all we like but as unique individuals, we all have varying needs.
Connection is promoted by addiction treatment centres
It is not only recovery groups that promote unity with like-minded others. Rehabs have recognised the power of connection in addiction treatment for many years.
Addiction treatments often involve many different kinds of group therapies. Having people with you who are on the same path, makes treatment less daunting and more enjoyable.
Right from the very beginning of addiction recovery, we are encouraged to connect with like-minded others and develop a recovery network.
Many rehabs also offer a therapeutic community, whereby those that have completed treatment can live with like-minded others in supported sober living housing. This enables each individual to grow and develop healthy relationships with others.
We are intended to be social
Just like the rats in the rat park experiment, we humans are intended to be social. We are capable of so many emotions, including compassion, empathy, anger, jealousy, sadness, joy, and love.
Why would we possess such capabilities and emotions if we were not meant to be social? As human beings, we are designed to connect with each other (whether we like it or not)
Just like the rats in the rat park experiment, we feel a special connection with others who are like-minded.
Connecting with other beings is one thing, but connecting with those who really understand us, holds an even greater meaning.
Connecting with another in addiction recovery offers an inexplicable comfort.
Alone, without connection, we are far more likely to end up as we were, before recovery (or even worse). Together, there is power in the unique connection and goal we share with each other.
Together, we can socialise, play, learn and interact. We are naturally drawn to others of a similar mindset, who have similar goals and who faced similar adversity.
There is a huge comfort in knowing we are not alone! This is why connection, in addition to other evidence-based therapies has proven to work as a treatment for addiction.
By walking the path of recovery together we can learn to trust and connect in a meaningful and healthy way. We can overcome whatever life throws at us (including its inevitable curve balls). There is so much to be said for connection in the way it can enrich our lives.
Author - Sammi
Understanding addiction: Why connection is vital to healing the addicted brain
- Bejerot, N. (1980). Addiction to pleasure: a biological and social-psychological theory of addiction. NIDA research monograph, 30, 246.
- Effect of early and later colony housing on oral ingestion of morphine in rats https://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/abs/pii/0091305781902112
- Alexander, B. K., Beyerstein, B. L., Hadaway, P. F., & Coambs, R. B. (1981). Effect of early and later colony housing on oral ingestion of morphine in rats. Pharmacology Biochemistry and Behavior, 15(4), 571-576.
- The Opposite of Addiction is Connection: https://www.psychologytoday.com/gb/blog/love-and-sex-in-the-digital-age/201509/the-opposite-addiction-is-connection