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The Science of Addiction and Recovery

In 12-step meetings, it is often said that someone was an addict before he or she “put in.” According to this view, putting a drug, whether alcohol or any other addictive substance, into our bodies in order to change our state of mind is the result of prior psychological, familial and social experience and, further, that such experiences then support and reinforce addictive behaviour. It turns out that there is abundant scientific evidence to support this point of view, evidence presented in Johann Hari’s brilliant book, Chasing the Scream: The First and Last Days of the War on Drugs.

According to the research that Hari reviews, two precursors to addiction are emotional trauma and psychological and social isolation. Addicts in recovery won’t find these findings to be a news flash. Addicts repeatedly report that they felt “apart from” at an early age, and just as frequently report growing up in families riddled with addictions, parented by flawed mothers and fathers who, at their best, had little idea of what their children were feeling or what they needed. Hari cites huge longitudinal studies of children—studies, for example, in which kids and their families were observed, tested, and followed from early childhood until 18 years of age—designed to figure out how much the quality of their parenting affected their later drug use. The correlations were so high that, by observing certain relevant parent/child interactions at an early age, scientists found that they could predict with dramatic accuracy which children would later struggle with drug addiction. Dysfunctional interactions in childhood predicted higher rates of substance abuse later in life, primarily because such interactions left behind toxic sediment of self-hatred that was so painful that subjects often sought drugs to diminish it. These researchers concluded that childhood trauma and abuse is as likely to cause drug addiction as obesity is to cause heart disease.

The reason this is important is that it contradicts the conventional view of drug addiction as being “substance dependent”—namely, that the substance that’s being abused is so powerfully addictive that it inherently has the power to rob someone of his or her will. Hari’s review of research, however, shows us that this isn’t true. He quotes one researcher who said, “Nothing is addictive in itself. It’s always a combination of a potentially addictive substance or behaviour and a susceptible individual.” It will not surprise any addict in recovery that emotional deprivation and trauma are powerful contributors to that susceptibility.

Isolation and loneliness are others. Many of us remember seeing chilling videos in the 1980s of a rat in a cage who had the choice of drinking from two water bottles—one containing plain water and the other with water laced with cocaine or heroin. Over time, the rats gravitated almost exclusively to the drug-infused water and drank it with such single-minded ferocity that they would forgo everything else and sometimes die in the service of their addiction. This study seemed to support the notion that it was the intrinsic power of the drug that fuelled the addictive behaviour. However, this study was decisively refuted by Dr. Bruce Alexander, a researcher from Simon Fraser University in Vancouver who replicated the experiment, but instead of a single rat alone in a cage, Alexander constructed a new cage that was much larger, had other rats, and contained games, learning tasks, opportunities for exploration and exercise, etc. He called his cage the “Rat Park” and the resident rats turned out to have little or no interest in the drugged water. He concluded that the context was crucial to the development of addiction and that, specifically, the opportunity to interact around meaningful activities in a community powerfully counteracted addictive tendencies. Addiction, he argued, was predicated on loneliness and isolation every bit as much — if not more so — as the powerful pleasures promised by the drug itself.

Alexander proved what addicts in recovery know so well—that the “therapeutic power of one addict helping another is without parallel.” The non-judgmental acceptance, and appreciative welcome of a recovery-based community can and does frequently trump the physical power of a mood-altering substance. Our recovery groups are like “Rat Park,” surrounding the lonely and isolated addict with a healing context. Just as the cause of addiction lies in certain toxic emotional and social environments that produce self-hatred and isolation, so too does its cure lie in supportive environments based on love and community.

It’s great when science contradicts common sense but confirms what people already know!

Originally appeared on


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