Here’s a great article on some of my favorite research, how creating a Rat Park (i.e., paradise for rats), leads to remarkably low rates of spontaneous drug use rates among animal models. As the article goes, this research by Bruce Alexander “led him to conclude that drugs — even such hard drugs as heroin and cocaine — do not cause addiction; the user’s environment does.” The Rat Trap piece over at The Walrus Magazine goes on to examine the Rat Park research, and then Alexander’s subsequent work on environmental causes for addiction.
One good quote: “Alexander’s research reveals that addiction rates are low when societies are stable, and they rise at times of social disruption. ‘The extreme case is the aboriginal people,’ he says. ‘You don’t have anything identifiable as addiction until you screw up their culture, and then alcoholism becomes a major problem. In extreme cases, addiction rates can go from zero to close to 100 percent.’ Such spikes suggest that environment is a stronger determinant of addiction than chemistry. As Alexander puts it, if you put a carton of eggs under a hydraulic press, it’s true some of the eggs will crack before others, but the problem isn’t the eggs. It’s the press.”
Still, understanding which eggs will crack, and why; and how and why specific cracks happen, and not other cracks, all provide an important role for more proximate research. It is that mix, of environment through individuals down to mechanisms and then back out, which is particularly challenging but interesting in addiction. And, in the end, that type of research might lead us to develop theoretical models that will go beyond treating either environments or genetics as hydraulic press models, imprinting us with their forms. In any case, for getting started, it is crucial to recognize the context, the overall lay of the land, and Alexander’s work provides us one good (though not complete, for me at least) perspective on that.