Wednesday, June 08, 2016

The Cure For Modern Life

Our school is housed in lower level of the Fremont Baptist Church, a place that also opens its doors to several 12-step groups, one of which meets early in the morning as I'm getting ready for school. I try to honor the "anonymous" part of AA and keep to myself, but I've become friendly with a few of the guys over the years and have taken part in many conversations about addiction.

The 12-step model is based upon the idea that alcohol and drugs (and gambling and sex and other things) are addictive and that any one of us could become an addict were we to systematically abuse them. We treat it like an incurable but controllable chronic disease and the kind of talk therapy offered by groups like AA is generally considered central to subduing addictive behavior. That is the prevailing societal idea, although I'm aware there are some who still consider addiction to be a weakness of character.

A couple months ago, I read a fascinating article by Bruce K. Alexander, psychologist and professor emeritus at Simon Fraser University. Much of our current thinking on addiction stemmed from rat studies in which rats were put in cages with the opportunity to inject themselves with various narcotic substances and in every case, every rat chose to do so, usually at an increasing rate until they died of their drug use. I've read of other experimental models in which these caged rats were given a choice between water bottles and water bottles laced with cocaine with similar results. And it was from these types of experiments that we came to the conclusion that some things are just inherently addictive and we are best advised to stay away from them.

As a young researcher, Alexander had taken part in some of these studies, but was dissatisfied with the experimental model. I mean, come on, rats in the wild are intelligent, social, active creatures. It only makes sense that if they are confined in a small cage with nothing to do but take drugs that's what they'll do. He and his colleagues decided to perform their own version of the experiment, but instead of isolating rats in solitary cages, they would build what they came to call "Rat Park," a place with plenty of space, things with which to play, plenty of tasty food, and, of course, other rats, including potential sexual partners. It was, in a word, a kind of rat paradise, and unsurprisingly, even when "addictive" drugs were available, the rats did not become addicted. Sure, they would sometimes imbibe, but most often in a way that we would probably identify and "recreational," and there was nothing like the universal addiction that had resulted from the earlier studies.

Alexander went on to find ways to study humans, mostly by digging into the historical records surrounding people who had had their traditional cultures destroyed such as Native Americans, but his tentative conclusion is that addiction has less to do with the drugs or the humans themselves, and more to do with the cages, real or metaphorical, in which we find ourselves.

When I talk to addicted people, whether they are addicted to alcohol, drugs, gambling, Internet use, sex, or anything else, I encounter human beings who really do not have a viable social or cultural life. They use their addictions as a way of coping with the dislocation: as an escape, a pain killer, or a kind of substitute for a full life. More and more psychologists and psychiatrists are reporting similar observations. Maybe our fragmented, mobile, every-changing modern society has produced social and cultural isolation in very large numbers of people, even though their cages are invisible!

Alexander points out that even in societies in which drugs and alcohol are not available, people who had been separated from their culture still exhibited many of the characteristic behaviors of mass addiction:

(P)eople stopped doing productive work and taking care of their families . . . idling away their time. Criminality and child neglect became problems, where they had not been before.

I've been living with this metaphor for awhile now and the more I think about it the more sense it makes to me. The mission of our little play-based cooperative school is to be a community in which we are raising our children together, a place with a thriving social and cultural life, a kind of "Rat Park" for children if you will, a place where we can play together. More than ever, I'm convinced that this is the way we should be doing it: that free play within the context of community is the cure for the plagues of modern life.

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Enna said...

I love your posts and they almost always resonate with me. This one in particular strikes me as being profoundly true. And the analogy of the "rat park" to your centre gives us all a metaphor for which to strive in our own centres. Thank you.

Sylvia - The Netherlands said...

Exactly! I came across this a couple of months ago and it keeps buzzing around in my head. Fascinating!

Nancy Schimmel said...

In college I was trying to decide whether to major in zoology or psychology. My zoo prof urged me to major in both, because the psychologists were running experiments on animals without knowing anything about animal behavior. This was in 1953.

I was interested in clinical, not experimental psychology and that's where I went. Sorry, zoo prof, you were right.