"Most war films ignore the boredom that sets in between bouts of action."
That's how psychologist Adam Alter starts the second chapter of Irresistible, his fascinating book on behavioral (and particularly tech) addiction. He goes on to explain that American soldiers in Vietnam spent a lot of that unglamorous downtime with heroin.
The heroin they encountered in Vietnam, known as "no. 4 heroin," was far more potent than what they would have encountered at the time in the U.S. By the end of the war, a staggering 35 percent of enlisted men said they had tried the drug they called "scag," and one in five were addicted. In May of 1971, the front page of the New York Times warned of the epidemic that would soon be coming home. "Tens of thousands of soldiers are going back as walking time bombs," one officer said. A report by two members of Congress, one Democrat and one Republican, warned that the problem would spread outward from veterans when they returned home: "The first wave of heroin is already on its way to our children in high school." The government scrambled to prepare for 100,000 heroin addicts returning from Vietnam. This would be a long-haul problem; Alter notes that normally only about five percent of heroin addicts get and stay clean.
Imagine the government's surprise when nearly all of those time bombs just fizzled. It was precisely the opposite of what they expected. Instead of 95 percent of addicts relapsing, 95 percent stayed clean. It defied the medical paradigm. The results were so unbelievable that initially some researchers indeed just didn't believe them. But they held up. How was that possible? It was an unprecedented result, and that is because it was an unprecedented natural experiment.
Many thousands of addicted soldiers, as they came home, were plucked from the milieu in which they had become users, and dropped in a totally different environment. That turned out to be the trick. Addictions are associated with environmental triggers, and all the triggers — from the whir of helicopter rotors to the familiar faces on base — were gone, overnight. Alter likened it to a study in which a squirrel monkey named Cleopatra was placed in a cage and trained to become addicted to a pleasure-inducing electrical current. (Electrodes had been implanted in the pleasure center of her brain, and she could trigger the current by pressing a metal bar.) Cleopatra became so addicted to pushing the metal bar that she stopped eating. When she was removed from the cage, though, she detoxed easily and became healthy again. Placed back in the cage, she quickly relapsed.
The obvious (and very much easier said than done) conclusion is that, to change a habit, change your environment. I was thinking about Alter's book recently while hosting Slate's "How To!" podcast. The particular episode involved a listener, Sarah, who had fallen in love with her best friend, John. They had both moved to the U.S. from India and were studying engineering in the same grad program, and they bonded quickly. When Sarah confessed her feelings, John was bemused, and said that he didn't want to change the friendship. "Punch in the gut," as Sarah put it. Sarah wrote in to "How To!" because she couldn't stop thinking about John. She wanted to know how to get the romantic thoughts to leave her alone so she could move on. She tried to date again, albeit not very effectively. As she told me in the episode: "To the poor man I went on a date with, I am so sorry because I was whining about how I was kind of in love with my best friend on our first date." (Works every time, I'm sure.)
To help Sarah, we invited biological anthropologist Helen Fisher, perhaps the most prominent researcher in the world regarding the neurochemistry of love. Fisher emphasized repeatedly that, in the brain, love can look a lot like addiction. Just like other addictions, she said, romantic feelings fire up an area of the brain known as the nucleus accumbens, which is associated with addictions to drugs, gambling, food, pretty much anything. Perhaps the word "intoxicated" is more literal than figurative when it comes to love.
Fisher's advice for Sarah was basically to do like one of those returning soldiers and change everything possible about her environment, to get rid of all the triggers. Sarah had already turned off the "reminder" function on her photo apps that would prompt her with pictures of John, but she was holding on to other triggers. A half-used pack of chewing gum that she and John bought on a road trip was still sitting in her drawer, silently broadcasting memories day and night. Fisher didn't beat around the bush when it came to mementos: "Don’t go playing the music that you danced to together," she told Sarah, very sternly. "And then you probably have cards and letters and things that he gave you. Put them in a box. You've got to get away from the triggers. And don’t put them in a special place like under your bed! Put them in a place where it’s cold, for Christ’s sakes."
That sounds neither fun nor easy. But, as Fisher assured Sarah, her work had proven that time would heal, and that the healing would require a lot less time if she followed the bury-your-memories-in-a-deep-grave-in-Siberia strategy.
After the episode, I thought about a time-wasting habit I'd developed in the last few months that's been getting in the way of a specific project I'm working on. I decided to apply the lesson, and physically moved my work on that project to a different room. So far so good, and I expect I'll try the change-my-environment strategy frequently going forward as a first attempt to change bad habits.
Thanks for reading. Until next time...