Could The Biggest Risk Factor for Addiction be Lack of Human Connection?
According to science, there are many factors that cause a human to fall prey to addiction, but this new study suggests addiction rates are rising because we are losing our human connection.
An important new study from psychologist Bruce K. Alexander, at Simon Fraser University, in Canada, tells us that the primary risk factor for addiction may be lack of human connection.
If you haven’t lived in a big city, you might not understand what it’s like to live next to millions of people, walk past thousands of them, and never make eye contact. To live inside a sea of humanity, but remain totally anonymous is very isolating.
For people who grow up in a small village, it may be customary to wave to every person you see that you drive past on your road. Chances are, you’ll find three people at your doorstep with casseroles two hours after you break your ankle.
I grew up in a small, American village and eventually moved to Hong Kong where I’ve spent roughly half my time for the past 5 years. The change from waving to everyone in America to ignoring everyone in Hong Kong was disconcerting. It made me feel very disconnected.
According to Alexander, this lack of human connection is what leads many to addiction. Unlike the popular ideology that addiction is bred from the strength of its source (be it video games, heroin, alcohol, pornography, etc), Bruce Alexander suggests that it stems from the current state of Western civilization.
First, we’re physically separated in the form of more floor space filled with objects instead of a small home filled with people. As a result, we suffer from emotional and spiritual disconnection from those around us. Next, we’re subjugated to political division and attacks on our consciousness. It’s no surprise that the Americans are in the midst of an opioid crisis that kills thousands every year.
I’ve suffered from alcohol addiction in the past and I know it’s not easy to break. Do I know the exact causes of why I became addicted? No, but the Rat Park Experiment that Bruce Alexander set up may help explain it. He took rats from two groups. The first group was isolated and kept in small cages with only water and drugs to pass their time. The second group he placed in what was essentially a rat’s paradise with toys, tunnels, sexual partners, and everything a rat could love, including the same addictive drugs.
Invariably, the rats in the small cages would consume drugs, often until they killed themselves with it. The rats in Rat Park would ignore the drugs altogether. Astonishingly, when rats from the small cages who were addicted to the drugs were released into Rat Park, they, too, would ignore the drugs and socialize like the other rats.
By locking ourselves in ‘cages’ and removing ourselves from a vibrant communal life, we’re driving ourselves to find a connection in other ways. That human connection we’re missing manifests itself in many ways:
- Drugs and alcohol
- Cell phone, video games, and brainless entertainment
- And many more
Could it be that instead of persecuting and shaming people for their addictions—actions that isolate them even further—we should be looking for ways to bring them even closer into our society?
For those who are addicted to opioids, they are treated as criminals and ostracized by their communities. They’re tagged with labels like ‘addict,’ ‘scum,’ and ‘loser.’ If caught by police, they’re removed from the ‘cage’ of their loneliness and isolation only to be thrown into a physical cage made of metal and stone.
What the Rat Park Experiment showed was that rats, even when addicted to opiates, are placed in a highly social environment, they voluntarily remove themselves from their addictive tendencies. Most interestingly, they don’t seem to undergo what is commonly thought of as the harsh withdrawal symptoms, such as:
- Intense pain
While they displayed minor levels of physical discomfort, they chose not to continue taking the addictive substances, even when they were offered the choice to do so.
What would happen if we restructured our ideas and our society to match that of Rat Park? If we modeled our societies more like the environment in which humans evolved—in tight-knit communities with room to run and play—would we see addiction fade away as in Rat Park? What if we nurtured human connection?
The answer isn’t clear, but we do know that for people who are addicted to a drug like heroin and enter drug rehab, they often fall back into the same addictive tendencies if they are placed back into the same situation as they lived before rehab. It seems that addiction isn’t so much a substance or behavior issue as it is a human-connection issue.