Once, a boy was growing up in one of the worst parts of Miami. He and his siblings were passed around among their relatives after his parents’ constant arguing and fighting culminated in divorce. Like most of the kids in his neighborhood, he was told to more or less fend for himself. He cared little for school and focused on sports. At 15, he got a girl pregnant. He stole, sold and took drugs, and once even held up a man at gunpoint. One hardly expects this story to have a happy ending.
Today, after much hard work, a series of lucky events, a number of determined and understanding mentors, and a tenure in the military, that boy is a happily married father and tenured Ivy League professor.
Dr. Carl Hart, Columbia University professor and neuroscientist, is fascinated by and studies the science of addiction. In his book High Price, Hart examines common misconceptions and expounds upon his scientific findings and ties them to memories of his own experiences, which drive many of his experiments.
Hart’s work focuses on the relationship among pleasure, choice, motivation, and drugs—inside a person’s brain and in society as a whole. As a student and professor of psychology as well as neuroscience, he explains his ideas in terms of behaviors and reinforcement: Positive reinforcement encourages a particular behavior; negative reinforcement discourages it. Near the beginning of the book, he uses this method to explain behavioral differences between kids in different social classes. Middle class families encouraged their children to ask questions and praised or encouraged them five times as much as they discouraged them; working class homes also had a positive ratio, albeit a smaller one; but families on welfare had a 2:1 ratio of negative expressions to positive ones. He also discusses similar trends in their children’s level of interest in school and questioning of authority figures.
As both the story of Hart’s life and the explanation of his work continues, he elaborates on the importance of different kinds of reinforcement. This culminates in a description of a 1970s experiment called the “Rat Park,” where lab rats in two environments—one stimulating, one isolating—were allowed to self-administer morphine. The rats in the isolating environment administered 20 times more of it than the rats in the stimulating one, which acted as an alternative reinforcer to the drug.
The same thing happens with humans, according to Hart: in one of his experiments, habitual crack cocaine and methamphetamine users overwhelmingly chose money (either $5 or $20) instead of their drug of choice when offered a choice between the two. This experiment and others led Hart to believe that despite the hysteria surrounding the use of both of those drugs, addiction is not as powerful as is usually thought, and that the harsh punishments for drug users serve only to further marginalize the users. In fact, he concludes that most of the ideas that drive the U.S. government’s war on drugs are not based on up-to-date or solid science.
Part memoir, part scientific paper, and part policy critique, High Price is a brilliant book that should appeal to a wide audience. The autobiographical portions are honest and moving but don’t overwhelm the rest; the science is explained clearly; and the conclusions drawn are not in the least bit heavy-handed. Overall, this book would come highly recommended to anyone interested in sociology, psychology, and the oft-ignored interplay between the two.
High Price: A Neuroscientist’s Journey of Self-Discovery that Challenges Everything You Know About Drugs and Society (Harper/HarperCollins Publishers, June 2013)