Addiction as Human Bonding

3 minute read

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.

U.S. soldiers had become addicted to heroin there […] in fact some 95 percent of the addicted soldiers — according to the same study — simply stopped. Very few had rehab.

Diamorphine […] medical users just stop, despite months of use. The same drug, used for the same length of time, turns street-users into desperate addicts and leaves medical patients unaffected.
— Johann Hari (2015) The Likely Cause of Addiction Has Been Discovered

These are quite stunning case studies. I was aware that a big component of addiction was inside us and not the chemicals, but I didn’t expect to be this strong.

This gives us an insight that goes much deeper than the need to understand addicts. Professor Peter Cohen argues that human beings have a deep need to bond and form connections. It’s how we get our satisfaction. If we can’t connect with each other, we will connect with anything we can find — the whirr of a roulette wheel or the prick of a syringe. He says we should stop talking about ‘addiction’ altogether, and instead call it ‘bonding.’ A heroin addict has bonded with heroin because she couldn’t bond as fully with anything else.

So the opposite of addiction is not sobriety. It is human connection.


This is an interesting hypothesis, even if I don’t have the elements to validate it, sounds credible. So I dug a bit deeper and I found the mentioned essay:

My main practical problem with current medical involvement with addiction is that people who are diagnosed as addicted are made more powerless to manage their life than other clients of medical treatment.

I will propose an alternative way of looking at behavior that is currently called addiction, seeing it as normal human potential, that of strong bonding. Bonding is an emotional process that creates ties that cannot be shed at will. Human bonding can take place with a large variety of objects, from food, drugs, ideas, people, places to musical instruments and animals. The stronger a bond the more an individual will value and defend it, even under conditions of (extremely) negative consequences. Bonds, also strong ones, should as a rule be respected and not made illegitimate. Bonding is a general and inescapable human propensity but the designation of some intensities (of feeling, of involvement) or some objects as deviant or ‘addiction’ is specific to a culture. […] Medicalization and criminalization of an ‘addiction’ is a way of lowering the level of social acceptance of certain bonds, just like medicalization and criminalization of homosexuality.
— Peter Cohen (2009) The Naked Empress: Modern neuro science and the concept of addiction.

Apparently, he’s not the only one mentioning that there’s no sound research on addiction that points a causal link, A later paper mentions:

It is widely – if not universally – assumed that these neural adaptations play a causal role in addiction. In support of this interpretation brain imaging studies often reveal differences between the brains of addicts and comparison groups (e.g., Volkow et al., 1997; Martin-Soelch et al., 2001) However, these studies are cross-sectional and the results are correlations. There are no published studies that establish a causal link between drug-induced neural adaptations and compulsive drug use or even a correlation between drug-induced neural changes and an increase in preference for an addictive drug.
— Gene M. Heyman (2013) Addiction and Choice: Theory and New Data.

The above two researches are incredibly interesting for me: they both challenge the usual understanding of addiction, highlight how there isn’t rigor in the research up until now, and proposes an hypothesis on how it could be instead researched.

Of course, I’m not an expert in the field, so I can just mention others, but given the low success rate our society had so far in treating addiction, I feel there’s something good in these new approaches.