During a recent webinar, Dr. Jerry Davis shared with constituents of Compass Rose Academy research on addiction through the lens of trauma and attachment. He began by sharing a research experiment done by Dr. Bruce Alexander (1977) from Simon Frazier University. In this study, the researchers developed 2 spaces for rats. The first, which they called “Rat Park,” had painted walls, scenes of woodlands, and natural environments. They used fragrant shavings on the floor for rats to nest in and scattered boxes and cans around for the rats to hide and play in, as well as gave the rats other rats to interact with. Conversely, the second rat space consisted of a cage, without colorful scenery, toys, or other rats. Next, the researchers introduced morphine to both the “Rat Park” and to cages with individual rats.
What the researchers observed was profound: those rats alone in cages seemed happy to drift into a drugged state and partook in the morphine, while those rats in the “Rat Park” largely left the morphine untouched, seeming to prefer not to interrupt their social life with the morphine’s effects (1977).
Dr. Davis asks “What if the difference between not being addicted and being addicted was the difference between seeing the world as your park… and seeing the world as your cage?” (Davis, 2022). He cites Mate (2022) as he educates that childhood pain is generally the source of addiction, either from bad things happening that shouldn’t, or good things not happening as a result of the parents’/caregivers’ emotional capacity. Whatever the circumstance, addictions “are an attempt to regulate an unbearable internal emotional state through external means” (Davis, 2022).
For me, this experiment and its findings, while profound, were not a surprise. We are wired for connection! Of course the rats that had other rats to interact with in warm, playful environments thrived. In application, we need to find out not only how to build these robust and relational environments for struggling teens, but also how to help the clients see that these environments exist and are within their reach. To do so, we have to go beneath the surface (thoughts and behaviors) to the source (feelings and experiences) and build back in those elements lost. Trauma happens in relationships, and healing does as well.
By Director of Admissions Madeline Spring, MA, LMHC