Meme(s) of the week: rats, isolation, pornography, and shopping, also… the meaning(s) of life

The embrace of pornography
Shopping as a defence against sadness

You might reasonably ask yourself, what do rats, isolation, pornography, shopping, and the meaning of life have to do with each other? Fair.

The connector is the phenomenon we call “addiction.” The American Society for Addiction Medicine (ASAM) refers to addiction as “a chronic brain disease” (link). This is the prevailing orientation of medical professionals, Doctors, Psychologists, and Psychiatrists. And this is the orientation that is contained in the DSM (Diagnostic and Statistical Manual), the great bible of mental pathologies.

If we accept the medical model definition, addiction is solely the problem of the addicted: the pathology is in the brain of the person addicted to a substance or a behaviour. But this is nonsense. And this is where the rats comes in.

Rat

Rat Park is a now famous experiment conducted at Simon Fraser University in Vancouver in the late 70s. The gist of the experiment is the following: rats are put into two radically different environments. In the first, rats were put into a large environment with many other rats of both sexes, with play structures and a variety of other things that rats apparently like. In the second, rats were housed in standard small specimen cages by themselves. The results speak directly to this phenomenon called addiction. The rats in both scenarios had access to narcotics they could access at will.

The rats who were on their own with no stimulation in their environments accessed substantially more of the narcotic water than the rats who had the ability to roam freely, be stimulated by objects, and be with other rats. Solitary male rats consumed 19 times more of the narcotic than the rats in the park did. In another experiment, when a rat that had been in a solitary cage and had become “addicted” to a narcotic was then put into the park environment, the “addicted” rat no longer chose to drink the narcotic water. The “addicted” rats did suffer physical symptoms of withdrawal, but generally forwent the substance to which they were “addicted” in favour of spending time with their rat brothers and sisters.

Both the memes above speak directly to the rat park experiment. And please don’t misunderstand me here: I am not saying that the overuse of pornography or shopping is an ideal solution to one’s problems nor am I saying that people are driven to the use of pornography or shopping by outside forces and individuals have no personal responsibility. That would be just as foolish as calling addiction a chronic brain disease.

My point is the following: the wellbeing or illness of people is a reflection and product of the society in which they live. It’s true for rats, and its true for people. When people are isolated—physically and psychically—from their fellow citizens, like the rats in the experiment, they are much more likely to employ strategies that do not contribute to their wellbeing—pornography and shopping and gambling and alcohol and drugs—because they do not have access to people in their community and stimulation in their environment. Rats in isolation use drugs much more regularly than rats do in community. Importantly, this is not to say that rats in community used no drugs. This is not an all or nothing proposition. In the rat park experiments, rats did access the narcotic provided… occasionally. But all things being equal, they much preferred the company of their fellows and the presence of drugs presented no danger to the functioning of their community.

isolationWe know that isolation kills. This is not figurative language. In the 2023 document entitled Our Epidemic of Loneliness and Isolation produced by the Surgeon General in the U.S., the conclusions are unequivocal and grim. Loneliness and isolation are associated with profound increases in cardiovascular disease, hypertension, type 2 diabetes, depression, anxiety, and suicidality. Most alarmingly, loneliness and isolation are associated with a 50% increase in dementia for older adults! An identifiable 50% increase in a tragic and costly—individually, socially, and economically—disease state is a profound finding.

What to make of all of this? As is my wont, I turn to the language and philosophy of existentialism. Existentialism is regularly thought to be a philosophy characterized by its grimness, and the quotation that will follow might reinforce that sense, but to my mind this is a misreading or misunderstanding. Yes, the existentialists write about absurdity and death and groundlessness and meaningless, but they do so because they are searching for a ground on which to live life. How is it possible, they ask in unison, to live a life that you experience as meaningful and purposeful—what I might call local meaning and purpose—when we struggle to find the big or transcendent or transhistorical meaning and purpose that has traditionally been located in religion or the nation state. And it is here that isolation becomes a particular problem.

The following is a quotation that has been attributed to Albert Camus, one of the great existentialist thinkers. You can find it all over the internet, but I haven’t been able to locate it precisely in any of his writing. I will include it here irrespective, because the sentiment is consonant with his thinking, and it is a perfect encapsulation of what I am trying to communicate. Camus wrote (sort of):

The literal meaning of life is whatever you’re doing that prevents you from killing yourself.

This likely doesn’t disabuse you from the sense that existentialists are just a bunch of depressed Europeans who are obsessed with death. Here’s why that is not so: whether a rat or a person, we are searching for meaning and purpose. Rats who live in a good—by rat standards—environment have little need for narcotics. As established above, this does not mean that they are abstinent. Like any animal, rats suffer injuries and are susceptible to diseases. As such, rats will take pain relief where it is available. But they do not primarily desire it. All things being equal, they would rather be their regular rat selves part of their rat society.

And so it is with people. We are told that addiction is, at least in part, genetic. It is certainly true that we see the phenomenon running in families. But is that a genetic disposition towards addiction or is that a genetic disposition towards ways of being that make it more difficult to locate meaning in the world? Perhaps there is a genetic disposition towards difficulty in connecting with others. As someone who specializes in working with neuro-deviant populations, I regularly see clients with adhd and ASD, who have spent a lifetime puzzling over their relationships and themselves. And what do we know about those populations? Yup… a much higher incidence of “addiction.” ADHD, ASD.

Returning to our semi-apocryphal Camus quotation above and linking it to the memes up top, in the absence of meaning or compatriots who help us to stand up to the “problems, stress, and pain” or “sadness,” we turn to pornography or shopping or alcohol or gambling or literally any other activity that keeps those lived bodily experiences at bay. And yes…. those activities can become habit forming. But if they do… then that becomes the project of one’s life. Again, I am not holding that project up as a good one, but as Camus tells us, it is better to have a project of being an addict or attempting to kick whatever addiction one has than have no project at all.