Bonus resources / Human mind, feelings & emotions

Are we wrong about addiction?

Science mostly suggests that addiction arises through continued overuse, and that once you have started regularly partaking in your desires, it becomes difficult to stop.

In the previous addiction post we introduced addiction as something that occurs through the overuse of, or overexposure to something. Ie. An addiction to cigarettes (or the nicotene in them) develops through the repeated act of smoking cigarettes (if you want to know how that then becomes an addiction read that previous addiction post).

In this post we are considering the fact that perhaps scientists are wrong in how they think about addiction.

Flaws in the current understanding:needle blank

If so many people get prescription medicine/drugs, how come they don’t all get addicted? 

Well despite in some cases being exposed to the real deal (sometimes even ‘better’ stuff than what one could find on the streets) ‘users’ that have been prescribed or even drip fed the drug are using it for a different purpose. Yes, sure, the actual chemical series of events are the same, and it is having the same physical response, but the key difference is one has been told/made to take it after an unusual situation, while the other has decided themselves to take it and try to fit it in to their everyday life situation.

The chemicals in the drugs must have addictive properties for humans because it has been proven in healthy rats.

So, yes there were studies on lab rats, they were mostly executed between the 1960s and 80s. The rats were housed in small cages that were all lined up next to each other, so they could hear each other, but due to the nature of the set-up they were unable to see each other. Other then the cage itself, they only saw the people who fed them and cleaned their ‘bed pans’. The studies themselves were fashioned so that rats could pretty much administer drugs to themselves by pressing a lever, and the studies concluded that because the rats kept injecting themselves, it proved the addictive properties of such drugs, this knowledge was then applied to how humans must find the drugs also addicting. rat prison

The issues with this: It could be argued that the rats were not ‘healthy’, nor were they appropriate representatives for the average human who faces addiction. These rats would usually be found living in communities with constant socialisation, but these poor guys were restrained to a cell, much like a prison, without the exercise time. Perhaps the addiction results seen in these studies could be applied to how people in jail might get addicted to illegal substances. But to use these guys to represent your everyday Joe Blogs was not the best comparison.

Rats that were housed in more ‘natural’ conditions were not as likely to become regular users of the drug substances. 

rat partTo get a more accurate representation of addiction in ‘normal’ rats, scientists created a ‘rat park’, much different to the prison-housing scheme in the first study, now the rats in the study were all in one giant rat eutopia, there was saw dust, running wheels, tin cans for nesting and climbing structures. These little guys had two drip feeders, one water and one water laced with drugs, in this scenario the rats didn’t partake in the drug use nearly as often.


The results of the rat park.

So the rats were only getting addicted when they were ‘unhappy’ with their environment or when the environment wasn’t very nice or when there was nothing else to do. Of course because they are rats the human scientists were unable to tell if they were actually unhappy or not, this was mostly assumed.

What about in humans?

ttabltSo apparently the Vietnam war was pretty boring for the soldiers. This is apparently one reason they casually took up shooting heroin. After returning back from a visit to the troops to the United States, two congressmen delivered the concern that ALL of the servicemen were addicted to heroin.

There were concerns that these soldiers would come back and there would be havoc because they would still be addicted. But turns out, when they came back, most of them weren’t.

In 1973/74 Lee N. Robins published a study on these fellows. “In the first year after return, only 5% of those who had been addicted in Vietnam were addicted in the US”. The study found that despite the fact that they were ‘addicted’ while in service, they were not when they came back. Which kinda goes against the whole scientific understanding of addiction!

So why do we still believe the original science?

The Robins study didn’t revolutionise how we think of addiction because it never got picked up and accepted by the media/public. Robins himself says there are three reasons for this:

  1. They don’t want to believe that Heroin is not as big and deadly of a drug as it is thought to be, so they don’t trust the scientific data. Some also believe there was data ‘tampering’ for political reasons.
  2. They claim that addiction occurred while the servicemen were at war because they were at war. The belief being that someone in a negative environment would be more likely to get addicted. Therefore this cannot apply to ‘normal’ settings where one is not at war.
  3. They believe that the servicemen ‘dropped’ their addictions when they returned due to the change in setting. Back in the States the drugs would be much less available and they wouldn’t know where to obtain them and they wouldn’t feel the effects of withdrawal because they were in such different environments that their minds wouldn’t have the environmental stimuli or reminders to cause the withdrawal symptoms.

In a review of his study he mentions how some of the results should influence policy-making:

  1. There is a difference between addicts and addicts who feel the need to be treated. He believes that not all addicts need help to get off the drugs, but those who do need the help, require more then just removal of the drug from their life.
  2. He believes that heroin is not as bad as the rep it gets. That the supposed effects the drug has on the user ie. long-term addiction & crime, could just be coincidence, that those are the types of people who are seen/caught using the drug.
  3. There should be no segregation of addiction help based on the drug type. Ie. if someone is addicted to alcohol, they should be allowed the same degree of treatment as someone who is addicted to heroin. It is not necessarily the drug itself that is the problem. Child neglect and other effects of addiction can occur with any drug.


Johann Hari spent 3 years researching addiction for personal reasons, he has recently written a book Chasing The Scream: The First and Last Days of the War on Drugs. This animation is one he scripted about his alternative approach to addicts and addiction.

If you want to read a bit more about the rat park situation click here. There is also this cute comic strip about it.

The papers written by Lee N. Robins:

His original study: Robins, L. N. (1973). A Follow-up of Vietnam Drug Users: Interim Final Report. Special Action Office for Drug Abuse Prevention.

Published version: Robins, L. N. (1974). A follow-up study of Vietnam veterans’ drug use. Journal of drug issues.

His self-review: Robins, L. N. (1993). Vietnam veterans’ rapid recovery from heroin addiction: a fluke or normal expectation?. Addiction, 88(8), 1041-1054.

If you are super interested in learning more about Johann Hari’s viewpoint he did a TedTalk last year: Everything You Think You Know About Addiction Is Wrong


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