Monday, October 02, 2017

What really causes addiction -- to everything from cocaine to smart-phones? You're not going to do that, and the reason you're not going to do that is not because anyone's stopping you. It's because you've got bonds and connections that you want to be present for. You've got work you love. You've got people you love. You've got healthy relationships. And a core part of addiction, I came to think, and I believe the evidence suggests, is about not being able to bear to be present in your life.

 What really causes addiction -- to everything from cocaine to smart-phones? And how can we overcome it? Johann Hari has seen our current methods fail firsthand, as he has watched loved ones struggle to manage their addictions. He started to wonder why we treat addicts the way we do -- and if there might be a better way. As he shares in this deeply personal talk, his questions took him around the world, and unearthed some surprising and hopeful ways of thinking about an age-old problem.

And when I learned this, it seemed so weird to me, so contrary to everything I'd been told, everything I thought I knew, I just thought it couldn't be right, until I met a man called Bruce Alexander. He's a professor of psychology in Vancouver who carried out an incredible experiment I think really helps us to understand this issue. Professor Alexander explained to me, the idea of addiction we've all got in our heads, that story, comes partly from a series of experiments that were done earlier in the 20th century. They're really simple. You can do them tonight at home if you feel a little sadistic. You get a rat and you put it in a cage, and you give it two water bottles: One is just water, and the other is water laced with either heroin or cocaine. If you do that, the rat will almost always prefer the drug water and almost always kill itself quite quickly. So there you go, right? That's how we think it works. In the '70s, Professor Alexander comes along and he looks at this experiment and he noticed something. He said ah, we're putting the rat in an empty cage. It's got nothing to do except use these drugs. Let's try something different. So Professor Alexander built a cage that he called "Rat Park," which is basically heaven for rats. They've got loads of cheese, they've got loads of colored balls, they've got loads of tunnels. Crucially, they've got loads of friends. They can have loads of sex. And they've got both the water bottles, the normal water and the drugged water. But here's the fascinating thing: In Rat Park, they don't like the drug water. They almost never use it. None of them ever use it compulsively. None of them ever overdose. You go from almost 100 percent overdose when they're isolated to zero percent overdose when they have happy and connected lives.
Now, there's a place that decided to do the exact opposite, and I went there to see how it worked. In the year 2000, Portugal had one of the worst drug problems in Europe. One percent of the population was addicted to heroin, which is kind of mind-blowing, and every year, they tried the American way more and more. They punished people and stigmatized them and shamed them more, and every year, the problem got worse. And one day, the Prime Minister and the leader of the opposition got together, and basically said, look, we can't go on with a country where we're having ever more people becoming heroin addicts. Let's set up a panel of scientists and doctors to figure out what would genuinely solve the problem. And they set up a panel led by an amazing man called Dr. João Goulão, to look at all this new evidence, and they came back and they said, "Decriminalize all drugs from cannabis to crack, but" -- and this is the crucial next step -- "take all the money we used to spend on cutting addicts off, on disconnecting them, and spend it instead on reconnecting them with society."

Now, that's the political implications. I actually think there's a layer of implications to all this research below that. We live in a culture where people feel really increasingly vulnerable to all sorts of addictions, whether it's to their smartphones or to shopping or to eating. Before these talks began -- you guys know this -- we were told we weren't allowed to have our smartphones on, and I have to say, a lot of you looked an awful lot like addicts who were told their dealer was going to be unavailable for the next couple of hours. (Laughter) A lot of us feel like that, and it might sound weird to say, I've been talking about how disconnection is a major driver of addiction and weird to say it's growing, because you think we're the most connected society that's ever been, surely. But I increasingly began to think that the connections we have or think we have, are like a kind of parody of human connection. If you have a crisis in your life, you'll notice something. It won't be your Twitter followers who come to sit with you. It won't be your Facebook friends who help you turn it round. It'll be your flesh and blood friends who you have deep and nuanced and textured, face-to-face relationships with, and there's a study I learned about from Bill McKibben, the environmental writer, that I think tells us a lot about this. It looked at the number of close friends the average American believes they can call on in a crisis. That number has been declining steadily since the 1950s. The amount of floor space an individual has in their home has been steadily increasing, and I think that's like a metaphor for the choice we've made as a culture. We've traded floorspace for friends, we've traded stuff for connections, and the result is we are one of the loneliest societies there has ever been. And Bruce Alexander, the guy who did the Rat Park experiment, says, we talk all the time in addiction about individual recovery, and it's right to talk about that, but we need to talk much more about social recovery. Something's gone wrong with us, not just with individuals but as a group, and we've created a society where, for a lot of us, life looks a whole lot more like that isolated cage and a whole lot less like Rat Park.