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  • Writer's pictureAdam O'Neill

Isolation, Addiction, and Community


The Mind after Eden by Adam O'Neill

Note: The following is a chapter excerpt from The Mind After Eden: Psychiatry in a Post-Fall World. It is being posted here to increase its access in a world of ever-increasing pathways of addiction-- from phones and excessive social media to alcohol and pornography this world is attempting to get and maintain your attention. Let us be mindful that in a community with fellow believers, there is an intimacy that can help us break bonds of addiction. Click here to purchase a copy of the full text.


Chapter 2 - Isolation, Addiction, and Community


The reward pathway is powerful; so powerful in fact that it is responsible for our personal survival today and our species’ survival over millennia. Several deep brain centers are responsible for providing positive reinforcement when we do things that ensure our DNA is propagated to new generations. Food is a common activator of the reward pathway; sex is another. The mesolimbic pathway in the brain, commonly referred to as the reward pathway, involves the activation of the ventral tegmental area the nucleus accumbens and the prefrontal cortex. Activation of this pathway releases dopamine, one of the feel-good neurotransmitters, and reinforces the behavior to make sure we do it again. It’s one of the reasons our ancestors sought out food, especially food high in fat and carbohydrates, despite it requiring an enormous expenditure of energy. We were hunting, running, hiding, and outsmarting our prey in order to acquire the fat filled, nutrient-rich meat provided by animals. Something happened, however, with the industrialization of society and our improved access to densely nutritious food. Our brain provided reinforcement for our eating behaviors, consistently and reliably, despite the relative accessibility and little effort required to continue the behavior. Many people, when feeling sad or isolated, turn to food for comfort. This, at least at the biological and neurochemical level, makes logical sense. The eating behavior provides the necessary release of hormones to make us feel better. Unfortunately, this short term dopamine release does not solve the actual problems we are facing so we are left to graze on salty, fatty, sugary food frequently to feel better.

 

Sex is another powerful reinforcer. Sexual activity at its most basic form is the propagation of our genetic material and the continuation of our species. It makes biological sense for it to be reinforcing. From a faith perspective it is the fulfillment of the biblical mandate to be fruitful and multiply. We have been divinely designed to find sex reinforcing. Excluding criminal cases of rape, humans employ a selection process of mating where partners size up their potential mates with females often selecting from a pool of eligible male partners[i]. For men who serve as the initiators of most romantic relationships this can be quite the minefield of reward and punishment. Rejection of romantic advances is viewed by male suitors, unconsciously, as the determination of their genetic makeup as inferior and not worthy of propagation. This thought, except to the sociologist or psychologist, would never enter their mind, yet it’s there. It’s not just a blow to the ego; it’s a determination that it would be better, at least to that person, for your DNA not to be passed to a younger generation[ii]. It means genetic and social isolation. So while sex is reinforcing, the process by which it is acquired is difficult. There must be an easier way for the innovative human to make acquiring sex as simple as eating the packaged food we discussed earlier. Enter the ease of access to pornography.

 

Pornography is not a 21st century invention, but there is no doubt the era of computers has made it vastly more accessible. Here on our computers, iPhones, and iPads is an array of women on display for men’s sexual gratification. It is an answer to the biological problem described above. Often, while working on my computer I will see spam for pornographic websites. The messages are tailored to the primitive brain: “Young singles want YOU” and “Don’t spend tonight alone.” They might as well say, “You are worthy of love and belonging” and “Your genes are valuable.” Pornography’s use is expanding. The organization Fight the New Drug, which advocates against pornography, reports that “64% of young people age 13-24 actively seek out pornography weekly or more often.” The online pornography site PornHub reports that it has 28.5 billion total visits (81 million a day, 4 million an hour, and 56,000 a minute). Approximately 75% of its viewers are male. Time of visiting the website has a bimodal distribution 4pm–5pm and 10pm–1am.[iii] “Had a rough day at work? Feeling unappreciated by bosses and coworkers? Come let us remind you that you are worthy of love.” Women too are seeing an increase in those who regularly access pornography, though there are good arguments for its biological causes. “Not feeling quite satisfied in your married life? Wife asleep? We are always in the mood.” The moral of this information is, if it has the ability to activate the reward pathway, it can become addictive; and the easier it is to acquire, the more detrimental it can become. Another source of reward pathway activiation is drugs.

 

When soldiers went to war in Vietnam they were placed into a stressful environment with relatively easy access to a powerful activator of the mesolimbic pathway: heroin. Heroin is such a powerful reinforcer that it has become the end-game of the opioid epidemic in the United States (that is, until synthetic opioids which are much more potent, such as fentanyl, entered the market). Many patients addicted to heroin found themselves initially using physician prescribed opioid painkillers like hydrocodone or oxycodone. The euphoric feeling it provides is what gives the medication its addictive quality, not just the pain relief for which it is prescribed. Prior to leaving for Vietnam, only 2% of soldiers reported using heroin, while 34% reported use while deployed. Even more had used narcotics (including heroin) with 43% reporting use in Vietnam (compared to 11% before). With these numbers, the United States braced for an epidemic of addicted veterans returning to the United States, but the numbers didn’t show this to be the case. In fact, only 7% reported heroin use after returning home with only 10% using narcotics of any kind. Only 1% reported addiction to narcotics after returning home.[iv] The fuel for our current opioid epidemic seemed to have no effect on veterans who used while deployed. This seemed to suggest that what we knew of addiction wasn’t entirely complete. Perhaps addiction had more to do with our environment than we previously thought.

 

In 1978 psychological researcher Bruce Alexander and his colleagues performed an experiment infamously known today as “Rat Park.”[v] Dr. Alexander had a theory that it wasn’t the addictive quality of the substance but the environment the substance was consumed in. He placed isolated rats in cages and gave them only a solution of morphine and water to drink. Morphine is a potent opioid and has addictive potential. Then he placed his “addicted rats” alone in a cage with a choice: they could continue to drink the morphine water or they could have regular water. Alone in their cages they continued to consume morphine. Then he placed the rats in a cage with “peers.” Here the rats were finally able to socialize. Although the rats had been force-fed morphine water and had previously (given a choice) chose to continue drinking morphine, now they significantly decreased their consumption of morphine and began drinking the regular water. While animal research will always have to defend itself for the difficulty extrapolating animal research to a human subject, the implications of this research especially in light of the studies involving veterans, deserve our attention.

 

Isolation is the ultimate form of negative reinforcement available to our species. Contrary to popular belief, no one (no matter how alpha they appear) is a lone wolf. Coincidentally the creator of the lone wolf theory redacted his research after determining that the “lone wolves” he observed were not alone at all but a part of packs. From our single celled ancestors to the complex multicellular organisms we are today, isolation means death. Isolation means freezing to death in the arctic, being destroyed by rival gangs, killed by predators, an inability to hunt, and many more terrible fates. We will do anything to avoid isolation, including using substances.

 

We were made to be in community. Not just because isolation is dangerous, but also because belonging is so crucial to our survival as a species. It’s about food and access to it but it's also about something more. In the 1960s Dr. Harry Harlow was conducting research on rhesus monkeys at the University of Wisconsin-Madison.[vi] He was interested in how baby rhesus monkeys formed and displayed attachment to their mothers. In order to display the importance of attachment he devised a controversial experiment (animal rights, in research and otherwise, were not as prevalent as they are today). He created two inanimate “mother” monkeys, one which held a bottle but was formed out of wire and another that had no food but was soft and had a recognizable face. He tested preference by the amount of time the infant rhesus spent with each surrogate mother. The results were clear. Infant rhesus monkeys spent much more time with the soft, recognizable monkey than the wire monkey that held the bottle. If we can extrapolate from this research, it appears that attachment, especially between a mother and child, is about more than food. Community, like motherhood, represents more than meeting caloric needs. The companionship and community of family is worth going a little hungry for. Dr. Harlow is not without controversy. He continued his research with rhesus monkeys, exploring the impact of isolation on behavior with a cage termed the “pit of despair” where he subjected animal subjects to months of isolation with only his (and his colleagues) occasional hand to deliver food as company. Our repulsion to his treatment of animals in this way is clear evidence for our own knowledge of the importance of socialization and community.[vii] His research is clearly unethical precisely because community is necessary for survival. Many of his subjects eventually refused to eat and passed away, while others self-mutilated or, when reunited with others, tortured or killed their maters. Their behavior was permanently changed.

 

The theme of community is present throughout the narrative of scripture. From the moment God called Abram and told him to leave his home country he began making a scattered people into a nation. The institution of the New Covenant in Jesus' death and resurrection brought the chosen from all nations and peoples into this fold (John 10:16). Christian community, through the work of the church is the continuation of the family of God that began with Abraham. We were made for each other. Through history, though they faced persecutions of many kinds, God’s people flourished.

 

Dietrich Bonhoeffer was a German minister. He was imprisoned for his opposition to the Nazi Party during the Second World War. Though he did not survive his internment at a prison camp his writings survived and are a source of hope and comfort for many. In one of his theological powerhouses titled Life Together he says, “The more genuine and the deeper our community becomes, the more will everything else between us recede, the more clearly and purely will Jesus Christ and his work become the one and only thing that is vital between us” (p26). Those things that recede are both the things that cause division among us as well as the things that cause us to sin. It is through community that we become more like Christ. Psalm 133:1 shows us the joy of being a part of community: “Behold, how good and pleasant it is when brothers dwell in Unity.” The second verse of this psalm shows communities purpose: “It is like the precious oil on the head, running down on the beard, on the beard of Aaron, running down on the collar of his robes!” The psalmist is recalling for us the divine process of making clean and setting apart, anointing, that priests undergo to enter God’s presence. As a part of the new covenant we are justified by faith in Jesus, made right with Him, and washed clean, but we continue the process of sanctification within our community of believers. It is the reason Bonhoeffer writes, “Nothing can be more cruel than the leniency which abandons others to their sin. Nothing can be more compassionate than the severe reprimand which calls another Christian in one’s community back from the path of sin.” This process requires knowledge of our own sin. “How can I possibly serve another person in unfeigned humility if I seriously regard his sinfulness as worse than my own?” This is the community of faith, the community that breaks the chains of addiction. So the way biology has wired us to potentially abuse food, drugs, and pornography, community has the capacity to override it all. It’s a more powerful reinforcer than all the others. In community we may be free of our addiction.

 

Not all addictions are broken in this life. I know of many who, though saved decades ago, still wrestle with alcoholism, pornography, opioids, and other addictions. Many are awaiting their sanctification in the New Jerusalem. Whether we are freed of addiction in this life or the next we continue to fight and the only way to fight is with our brothers and sisters by our side. “Therefore, since we are surrounded by so great a cloud of witnesses, let us also lay aside every weight and sin which clings so closely, and let us run with endurance the race that is set before us, looking to Jesus, the founder and perfecter of our faith, who for the joy that was set before him endured the cross, despising the shame, and is seated at the right hand of the throne of God” (Hebrews 12:1-2). Don’t keep your struggles hidden; open them to the light of community and find healing, freedom, and continued sanctification.



[i] Long, M. L.-W., & Campbell, A. (2015). Female Mate Choice: A Comparison Between Accept-the-Best and Reject-the-Worst Strategies in Sequential Decision Making. Retrieved June 16, 2022 from https://doi.org/10.1177/1474704915594553

 

[ii] Peterson, J. (2021). The Core of Rejection. Twitter. https://twitter.com/jordanbpeterson/status/1427695940639600649?lang=en

 

[iii] 20 stats about the porn industry and its underage consumers. (2022, April 7). Fight the New Drug. Retrieved April 16, 2022, from https://fightthenewdrug.org/10-porn-stats-that-will-blow-your-mind/

 

[iv] Robins, L. N., Davis, D. H., & Nurco, D. N. (1974). How permanent was Vietnam drug addiction? American Journal of Public Health, 64(12_Suppl), 38–43. https://doi.org/10.2105/ajph.64.12_suppl.38

 

[v] Alexander, B. K., Coambs, R. B., & Hadaway, P. F. (1978, July 6). The effect of housing and gender on morphine self-administration in rats. Psychopharmacology. Retrieved April 16, 2022, from https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/98787

 

[vi] Harry F., & Harlow, M. K. (1962). Social deprivation in monkeys. Scientific American, 207(5), 136–147. https://doi.org/10.1038/scientificamerican1162-136.

 

[vii] Harlow, H. F., Dodsworth, R. O., & Harlow, M. K. (1965). Total social isolation in monkeys. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, 54(1), 90–97. https://doi.org/10.1073/pnas.54.1.90.

 

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