Everything You Know about Addiction is Wrong

hugs not drugs

In a recent Huffington Post article, Johann Hari discussed what he calls “the essential mystery of addiction:”

What causes some people to become fixated on a drug or a behavior until they can’t stop? How do we help those people to come back to us?

He suggests that the answer can be found in the work of Bruce Alexander, a psychology professor who challenged the validity of famous experiments in which rats became addicted to cocaine. Those poor rats, housed in barren environments, were lonely and bored. Prof. Alexander built the Rat Park, and all bets were off. The Rat Park inhabitants had good eats, fresh water, recreational opportunities, plenty of company and what, in the rat community, passes for intellectual stimulation—and cocaine, too, if they wanted it. The result, Hari says, was:

The rats with good lives didn’t like the drugged water. They mostly shunned it, consuming less than a quarter of the drugs the isolated rats used. None of them died. While all the rats who were alone and unhappy became heavy users, none of the rats who had a happy environment did.

Dr. Pretlow notes that this research may shed light on what is going on with eating addiction, as well:

The underlying cause seems to be lack of a social connection. We have observed this in our three studies, where the participants would hardly interact with each other. Obesity self-perpetuates this social isolation, e.g. being teased/rejected, turning more to food for comfort (“food is my best friend”), further loss of social skills and self-esteem, and more isolation.

This might be a good place to mention a remark made by Morgan Black, a drug counselor who works with addicts every day. He says they tell him, “Heroin feels like a warm hug.” In other words, it begins to look more and more as if human connection is the answer to everything. Johann Hari says:

This new theory is such a radical assault on what we have been told that it felt like it could not be true. But the more scientists I interviewed, and the more I looked at their studies, the more I discovered things that don’t seem to make sense—unless you take account of this new approach.

That paragraph was a tease, because the wisest course of action here would be to check out entire long-form piece. Incidentally, artist Stuart McMillen transmogrified Alexander’s work into an easily-comprehensible graphic novel format, and it has been translated into several languages.

Alexander, Hari, McMillen, and many other thought leaders have paused to take a step back and consider some of the things we think we know about addiction. Consequently, they are all about acceptance, compassion, unconditional love, and empathetic support. On the other hand, tough love rehab apparently works for some people, as described by David Foster Wallace in his novel Infinite Jest. On the whole, it appears that the clash of controversial (and maybe ultimately unprovable) ideas fits right in with the frequent Childhood Obesity News category, “Everything You Know is Wrong.”

It may very well be that social isolation is the underlying cause of the addictions to eating and other harmful behaviors that many people experience. There is also a good argument to be made that it is self-perpetuating. On the other hand, many of the distracting activities that people set for themselves are solitary ones, and for many people, they work. In his advice to a mother in England, Dr. Pretlow recommended that her daughter take up drawing or a craft project. Occupying a person’s hands is often enough to prevent other activities that are harmful to the self, like compulsive eating. Childhood Obesity News reader Cat McClintock wrote:

You listed activities kids can try instead of comfort eating, but you failed to mention my teenage favorite: playing sad songs on my guitar in my room alone for hours and hours. I laugh about it today, but it did the trick!

Of course, the lovely thing about an activity like playing the guitar is that it can inspire the person to seek out more social interaction, like forming a musical duo or joining a band. So it could go either way. Dr. Pretlow adds this note about the W8Loss2Go smartphone app, and how it can pave the way to engagement in social relationships that can be either preventative or curative:

Our app tries to help the child/teen reverse this vicious circle by building self-esteem and interacting with other users in the Peer Support area. Plus, the face-to-face group meetings, where the kids share wireless microphones connected to a loudspeaker and a recorder, seem to foster openness and camaraderie and have the potential to re-establish a social connection.

Your responses and feedback are welcome!

Source: “The Likely Cause of Addiction Has Been Discovered, and It Is Not What You Think,” Huffingtonpost.com, 01/20/15
Source: “#197: Injection Protection (Morgan Black),” LibSyn.com, 12/16/14
Source: “Rat Park,” StuartMcMillen.com, undated
Image by Vark1

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Profiles: Kids Struggling with Weight

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OVERWEIGHT: What Kids Say explores the obesity problem from the often-overlooked perspective of children struggling with being overweight.

About Dr. Robert A. Pretlow

Dr. Robert A. Pretlow is a pediatrician and childhood obesity specialist. He has been researching and spreading awareness on the childhood obesity epidemic in the US for more than a decade.
You can contact Dr. Pretlow at:


Dr. Pretlow’s invited presentation at the American Society of Animal Science 2020 Conference
What’s Causing Obesity in Companion Animals and What Can We Do About It

Dr. Pretlow’s invited presentation at the World Obesity Federation 2019 Conference:
Food/Eating Addiction and the Displacement Mechanism

Dr. Pretlow’s Multi-Center Clinical Trial Kick-off Speech 2018:
Obesity: Tackling the Root Cause

Dr. Pretlow’s 2017 Workshop on
Treatment of Obesity Using the Addiction Model

Dr. Pretlow’s invited presentation for
TEC and UNC 2016

Dr. Pretlow’s invited presentation at the 2015 Obesity Summit in London, UK.

Dr. Pretlow’s invited keynote at the 2014 European Childhood Obesity Group Congress in Salzburg, Austria.

Dr. Pretlow’s presentation at the 2013 European Congress on Obesity in Liverpool, UK.

Dr. Pretlow’s presentation at the 2011 International Conference on Childhood Obesity in Lisbon, Portugal.

Dr. Pretlow’s presentation at the 2010 Uniting Against Childhood Obesity Conference in Houston, TX.

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