SoberSoul….a person who creates, practices and lives the life we want, need and deserve. We seek information, motivation, and inspiration for learning ways to return to a balanced state of health, mind and strength. We seek to rediscover the essence of who we are and support a thoughtful, less hurried and calmer way of life.

In his widely disseminated 2015, TED Talk  “Everything You Think You Know About Addiction is Wrong,” British journalist Johann Hari discusses some of the available research into the underlying causes of addiction and concludes that the opposite of addiction is not sobriety, it’s connection. I can see why the talk has become so popular!

As one of many people in long-term Recovery, typically 5 or more years of continuous sobriety (a severely understudied population) can attest to… wouldn’t it be wonderful if it were that simple!  

Hari uses as the factual basis of his talk and book he was promoting, a study by Bruce Alexander, a researcher at Simon Fraser University, who separated rats into two cages, a stimulating one and an isolated one, and gave them morphine in order to measure the effect of environment on addiction rates.

The 1979 experiment was dubbed “The Rat Park” experiment and Alexander concluded “Addiction isn’t you — it’s the cage you live in,” He observed the rats in both isolated and flourishing communities, making his determination because the rats in the park consumed less morphine in a less addictive pattern than the group in the isolated cage.

For sure, Alexander’s study offered information in understanding addiction, but the results were far from conclusive. There were problems with the study and frankly, one of the reasons I don’t often quote a specific research paper or conclusion is my experience that any single or even several studies can be interpreted as fact to support and confirm an opinion.  The way I make use of research with my client is more like a meta-analysis or a collective study of data, which means I value, read and implement a variety of well researched and validated viewpoints.

I encourage each of you to listen carefully how people presenting a quick or simple answer to solving any problem, especially when overcoming a problem with an addictive substance.  If they are using “research shows” type statements, ask them how much they know about the validity of the research. There are actual well-accepted measures for this:

Judging the quality of a study consists of examining two areas: internal validity and external validity. Internal validity refers to the controls of a study. External validity refers to whether or not the results of that study can be projected back onto a larger population.

To be clear, I don’t mean the advice of the person referencing the study or information is not valuable, but it is likely tainted with confirmation bias of his or her own, perhaps limited, beliefs and experiences.

Research is simply information, not fact. 

My approach is that no one study proves anything and my personal recover doesn’t prove anything.  But, the experiences and outcomes of the thousands of people I have worked with both personally and professionally, along with my past and ongoing required education and licensure improve the odds that you are getting accurate, ethical and up to date information.

So, are we humans like the rats in the park?  Yes, in part.  Certain people are more vulnerable to addiction than others; many people can use a drug (alcohol) without becoming addicted.  Many of us in the addiction and co-occurring disorders field disagree slightly about where certain drugs should be on a spectrum of most to least addictive, but most agree that there is indeed a spectrum.

The study went largely unnoticed until 2008, when Gabor Maté, a Canadian doctor, addiction expert, and a strong critic of the War on Drugs, published In the Realm of Hungry Ghosts: Close Encounters with Addiction.  I am definitely a fan of Dr. Maté, mainly because he clarifies that environment can be a significant contributing factor in developing an addiction, not the only factor!  He cited the Rat Park experiment as well as a study published in 1975 which showed that rates of heroin addiction were 20 times higher for Vietnam soldiers while they were stationed in the war zone than before they shipped out. After they returned to the U.S., addiction rates fell back to pre-deployment levels.

Again, many people cite and exploit the hope of a “simple” answer to someone’s overuse of alcohol and drugs.

Indeed, Dr. Maté woke the addiction community and generated a lot of interest around the Rat Park experiment and Mr. Hari created an internet sensation when he published Chasing the Scream: The First and Last Days of the War on Drugs, which focused heavily on the work of Maté and Alexander. I applaud these efforts because they generated and continue to stimulate much-needed conversations.  Yet, it’s a double edge sword, because they also foster and perpetuate false hope and misuse of the information, leading to people receiving significantly less help than they actually need to overcome their problematic or addictive relationship with a substance or behavior.

NPR published a more realistic and usable article using this information called “What Vietnam Taught Us About Breaking Bad Habits”, you can read it here.  This quote says it all “It’s important not to overstate this because a variety of factors are probably at play. But one big theory about why the rates of heroin relapse were so low on return to the U.S. has to do with the fact that the soldiers, after being treated for their physical addiction in Vietnam, returned to a place radically different from the environment where their addiction took hold of them.”

There are many factors that lead us to an unhealthy relationship with substances:

  • environment
  • stress
  • genetics
  • life-circumstances
  • Co-occurring mental health issues/disorders (such as anxiety and depression)
    And a truly comprehensive set of studies and research outcomes identifying the effects of adverse childhood experiences (ACEs).

These factors also have different effects on different individuals. For example, people who suffer from a mental illness are twice as likely to struggle with addiction. But both Hari and Alexander still claim they’ve discovered the “real,” implying a singular cause of addiction.

Do I think some people can overcome problematic use by focusing on such singular avenues of recovery?  Yep, but so many more of us cannot.  Most of us initially seek to take the path of least resistance (pain) to get relief. I certainly did.  It’s the process of self-education through trial and error and it’s important!  The books, people, and treatment offerings by those who tout an easy pathway often have good intentions and some valuable information and personal experience.  But, when those avenues failed to work for me, I turned to people who had experience, wisdom, and credentials.

My passion is assisting people with questions about their drug and alcohol use by addressing each of the components and individual traits that drive us toward seeking escape from our lives.  Together we work to build a life for you that you want to live in.

What have you been told about your substance use?  Why do you want to believe it?


xx Lynn

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