When drugs and addiction are discussed by doctors, social scientists, and the media, the focus is often on the effect that drugs have on the brain, and how chemical and biological changes in the brain are to blame for addiction (remember those “This is your brain. This is your brain on drugs” commercials?). And while it’s true that addiction is, at its root, a disease affecting the brain, that’s not the whole story, and it cannot be said that addiction is entirely chemical.
In fact, addictions specialists and scientists have come to realize that social, genetic, and environmental factors play a much greater role in addiction than do the drugs themselves, because there are countless risk factors that can greatly increase a person’s chance of developing an addiction. This modern understanding of addiction has led to more effective treatment at drug rehab facilities, and addicts today are taught that behavioral changes, improved relationships, and healthy social environments are just as important to life-long sobriety as staying away from triggers and temptations.
Old Ways of Thinking About Addiction
Before the late 1970s, most of what people believed about addiction came from rat studies that demonstrated rats exposed to addictive substances, such as heroin, cocaine, and amphetamine, would quickly become addicted and willingly take large doses. These studies were conducted with rats that were isolated, housed in tiny containers, and deprived of food and stimulation.
As such, when given the opportunity, the rats gladly dosed themselves with narcotics that got them high. This informed the way people thought about drugs and addiction for some time, and people assumed that the rats’ behavior meant that drugs were inherently addictive, and that addiction couldn’t be avoided after exposure.
However, when a psychologist named Bruce Alexander came along, he determined that rats are social creatures that would be miserable if separated from other rats, and concluded that the experiments were faulty, and that new research needed to be conducted.
Biological Factors Supporting The Old View
Despite previous rat studies being incomplete, it is still true that there’s a strong chemical and biological component to addiction. Most of the addictive drugs that are used recreationally affect multiple parts of the brain, including the areas that control vital life functions, the ability to sense the environment, the ability to think and plan, and the pleasure center within the brain. No matter how a drug acts on the brain in other ways, one thing that most drugs have in common is their ability to flood the brain’s reward system with dopamine, producing feelings of euphoria.
These feelings not only make you feel great while you’re high, but the effect also teaches your brain to repeat the activity that caused it, and that is how addiction can start. However, the dopamine levels released in your brain because of drugs is much higher than the levels that are produced naturally, and the brain responds by producing less dopamine, or by shutting off some of the dopamine receptors. The user consequently has to continue taking drugs (usually in increasing amounts) in order to feel pleasure again, because they otherwise feel depressed and lifeless without the extra dopamine boost.
The Revolutionary Experiments of Bruce Alexander
In response to his suspicions that previous addictions studies involving rats had been incomplete and that biological and chemical factors weren’t the only components contributing to addiction, psychologist Bruce Alexander decided to conduct new studies that used rats that were allowed to live in a more natural setting. There were about 40 rats involved in the study, and they all lived together in a large enclosure, and they were able to play, mate, eat, and live together.
To test his theory, Alexander provided the rats with two separate drinking sources: one that contained pure water, and another that contained a morphine solution. What the study revealed was that the happy and social rats consumed nearly 20 times less of the morphine solution than the caged rats from previous experiments, and that even rats that were fed morphine solution exclusively in confinement voluntarily switched to water when they were allowed to join their fellows in the large enclosure.
From these findings, Alexander concluded that environment—and specifically feelings of loneliness and isolation—plays a much larger role in addiction than previously thought, and that addiction cannot be blamed on drugs alone.
But Addiction in Humans Is More Complicated Than in Rats
Despite the breakthrough results of Alexander’s experiment, it must be said that the experiment doesn’t completely translate to humans, because there’s no such thing as a human existence that’s separate from war, crime, poverty, hunger, mental illness, and all the other things in this world that cause pain, trauma, stress, and heartbreak.
And the thing is that these events make people more susceptible to addiction, especially if there are aggravating circumstances like genetic predispositions, traumatic neonatal conditions, and even poor diet during childhood. What this means is that while environment certainly plays a role in addiction, so too does biology, and you can’t understand or treat addiction without recognizing this.
Moreover, human society is arguably more complex than that of rats, and there are many other factors that can have a negative impact on psychosocial health and, therefore, addiction. For instance, over the last few decades in the United States, there have been a number of socio economic changes affecting white Americans between the ages of 45 and 54, and according to a study by Anne Case and Angus Deaton, these changes have led to a drastic increase in drug and alcohol abuse, fatalities, and suicide. The factors they point to are complex and numerous, but they include:
- The slow dissolution of the middle class
- The decreasing number of high-paying jobs available to workers with less education
- Long-term unemployment and increasing joblessness rates
- Increasing financial insecurity
- Social isolation, which is being caused by a decreasing number of unions, declining religious belief, and the trend toward not marrying
Modern Views and Treatments for Addiction Focus on Physical and Emotional Causes
Today’s understanding of addiction doesn’t single out a single factor, but rather incorporates them all—including chemical, biological, genetic, and psychosocial—into a cohesive understanding of addiction and its causes. It’s understood that at its root, addiction is a biological and chemical reaction in the brain that occurs when somebody takes an addictive substance. However, not everybody who tries drugs becomes addicted, and that’s where the other elements come into play.
As such, modern drug rehab also focuses on addressing both the physical and emotional causes of addiction, and treatment includes a comprehensive therapy regimen that involves a medically supervised detox, medications, therapy, a safe and welcoming environment, and a recovery program that focuses on whole-body and whole-mind wellness. Addicts are also taught the importance of building healthy relationships as a way to combat social and emotional isolation, which is a huge risk factor in addiction.
Addiction isn’t just a mindless occurrence that happens to anybody exposed to drugs, but neither do environmental factors alone explain addiction. For one, the world is more complex and relationships between individuals, families, and the greater community are more complicated than what was studied in the large rat enclosures. Moreover, there are also other chemical, genetic, and socioeconomic factors at play as well, and doctors, psychologists, and addiction specialists finally have a better understanding of the true nature and causes of addiction.
Thankfully, this has led to more effective treatments, and patients who get help from the best drug rehab centers will learn that addressing physical and emotional needs is the key to long-term recovery, and this includes getting over the physical addiction, as well as creating a strong support system of friends and family who can help mitigate some of the emotional factors that led to the addiction in the first place.