The short stories of The Sign Tracker Trilogy are based on scientific reports detailing the relationship between Sign-Tracking and the drug addiction process. Drug addiction is a widespread problem with many different causes, and no single factor can account for all aspects of this disorder. On the other hand, although the causes of addiction are complex, crucial to the prevention of drug addiction is a more thorough understanding of the transition from drug use into drug abuse. The authors conduct research on drug addiction and wrote the stories to explain, particularly to young readers, how drug use can turn into drug abuse and how drug use can continue even when the drug user intends to quit. There are many mysterious aspects to drug addiction, and each of the stories of The Sign Tracker Trilogy communicates to the reader a poorly understood or hidden aspect of the drug addiction process. These important aspects of addiction are largely invisible and unrecognized, even to the person who has become trapped in the pitfall of addiction.
Fundamental to the development of drug addiction is the loss of self-control of drug-taking. How and why this happens remains a mystery. Why is it that a person continues to use drugs, even when they are trying not to? How is it that the action of taking the drug becomes virtually automatic and disconnected from the intention to stop? And, why do so many addicts say that they were blind-sided? In the words of addicts, “I never saw it coming” or “I don’t understand how this happened to me”.
There is something mysterious about drug addiction, and the voices of addicts tell us that the process of becoming addicted remains poorly understood. What we have learned from the stories of addicts suggests that some of them remain unaware of their inability to control their drug use. Many addicts will even admit that they resolved to quit, but then somehow ended up taking the drug anyway. Do they see this as an indication of their lack of self-control? Not at all. They say that they intend to quit in the near future, and believe that when they decide to quit, they will. The voices of addicts tell us that the process of losing self-control is hidden or masked. To improve our understanding of the loss of self-control of drug-taking, we must change the way we look at it, because, as it is, we are trying to make sense of something that we are ill-prepared to see.
The Tail of the Raccoon, Part II: Touching the Invisible is a story that depicts the loss of self-control of drug-taking. While the casual reader may see a simple and elementary portrayal of initial drug use that turns into drug addiction, the more knowledgeable reader who is aware of Sign-Tracking, may see the action of drug-taking in an entirely new light. As Sign-Tracking develops, Lepus takes the drug automatically, even when he has not actually decided to do it. Though unintended drug-taking may be a cause for alarm, Lepus remains unconcerned because he is unaware that his drug-taking has escaped his self-control. Lepus does not realize that this is happening because Sign-Tracking closely resembles intended drug-taking. Each Sign-Tracking response – grabbing the vial and drinking from it – may be misconstrued as entirely voluntary and intentional. In this way, the gradual erosion of his ability to control his drug-taking goes unnoticed. Convinced that he remains firmly in control of his life, Lepus continues his inevitable slide down the slippery slope into the pit of drug addiction.
II. The Drug Addiction Process
Drug addiction is a serious problem that has ruined the lives of many people. Most of them do not start using drugs with the intention of becoming a drug addict. What usually happens is that people become addicted to drugs even though they believe that they can control their use. Many young people start using drugs only to find out later that their drug-taking has become very difficult to control. Those who experiment with drugs often learn that drug use is easy to start but very difficult to stop. Drug addiction is a world-wide problem, impacting people of all ages, robbing them of a meaningful, purposeful life. In the beginning, when drug use is initiated, the intent is not to become an out-of-control drug addict. The user simply intends to enjoy the drug’s rewarding effects through recreational use of the drug. When drug-taking is voluntary, when it is controlled and managed by the user, then the amount of drug that is taken will be a matter of choice. However, all too often, drug use increases from once a week to several times a week. In addition, more of the drug is taken during each episode which begins earlier and earlier in the day.
The first hint of a problem is evident when the drug is taken thoughtlessly. The user will sometimes notice that they took the drug automatically, as a matter of habit, without giving it a second thought. When drug-taking occurs mindlessly, without deciding to do it, then the amount of the drug that is consumed will be in excess of the amount intended. The next step in the evolution of addiction is very troubling. The user will decide that things have gone too far, and that it is time to rein in their drug use. Typically, when this happens, the user forms a specific intention to limit their use of drugs, to practice restraint in the face of temptation. For example, the user may resolve to restrict the number of drinks for the evening, but after reaching the limit, and despite their intention to hold the line, the user reaches out and has another. This is not the same as having a drink absent-mindedly. This is having a drink despite deciding not to. It is the inability to resist the urge to drink. It is a blatant violation of free-will and indicates that even though they are trying to restrain their drinking, their intention to do so is meaningless. This is a warning sign because it reveals that their action (to reach out and drink more alcohol) is disconnected from their intention (to not drink any more alcohol). The disconnect between action and intention occurs because the user cannot control their drug use. At this point, the drug user has crossed the line and is now well on their way to becoming a drug addict.
III. The Tail of the Raccoon: Secrets of Addiction
In The Tail of the Raccoon: Secrets of Addiction (Zito & Tomie, 2014) the reader was introduced to Sign-Tracking, as revealed by the behavior of “Sign Tracker” the raccoon protagonist. In this story, the Raccoon agreed to provide Mapache, a blind Native American warrior, with firewood in return for delicious morsels of tasty treats. After many exchanges of firewood for food, the Raccoon began to have problems. The Raccoon began to behave toward the sticks as though they were food, gnawing and chewing on them and dragging the sticks into the lake to be washed.
The Tail of the Raccoon: Secrets of Addiction is a story about the loss of self-control. Clearly, the Raccoon wants to eat Mapache’s foods, but, somehow, what he intends to do, which is to gobble up the food, is not what he actually does. Instead, his attention is directed to the sticks, which he gnaws on obsessively. The actions of the Raccoon are quite puzzling because we know that he loves Mapache’s food and his Sign-Tracking behavior is counter-productive. The lesson of the story is that pairings of an object with a reward induce Sign-Tracking which is revealed as the loss of self-control (Breland & Breland, 1961).
Sign-Tracking is important because it provides us with a way of understanding how behavior can become irrational and defy free-will (Tomie, Badawy, & Rutyna, 2016). Note that the raccoon’s behavior is controlled by the cue for reward, and this is not unlike the behavior of the drug abuser. Though it is the intent of the drug abuser to limit their drug-taking, the drug abuser is unable to control the impulse to have more. And, like the Raccoon in the story, their drug-taking consists of action directed at the object that signals the reward.
IV. The Tail of the Raccoon, Part II: Touching the Invisible
The role of Sign-Tracking in the drug addiction process is elaborated in the second story which depicts the progression from initial drug use into drug addiction. Lepus enjoys the intoxicating effects of Alatro’s potion and decides to have another, and then another, and so forth. Repeated pairings of the object (silken vial) with the rewarding effects of the drug (Alatro’s potion) induce Lepus to Sign-Track. Upon seeing the silken vial, Lepus will automatically and reflexively approach the vial, contact the vial, and drink from the vial. Sign-Tracking may look like a voluntary action, but Sign-Tracking is actually something quite different. Sign-Tracking is a triggered reflex that is not subject to self-control. Drug-taking due to Sign-Tracking is camouflaged, making it virtually invisible, and, as such, it is the well-kept secret of the drug addiction process. Due to Sign-Tracking, Lepus is triggered to perform the action of drug-taking, even if he has no intention of doing it. And because Sign-Tracking looks like and passes for voluntary drug-taking, Lepus believes he is in control and that quitting drugs is simply a matter of deciding to do it.
The drug-taking of Lepus is modeled after drug-taking in humans. Note that Alatro’s potion is located inside the silk vial, and Lepus handles the silk vial each time he consumes the drug inside. This is typical of drug taking in humans. When people take drugs, they almost always use some sort of object to aid in consuming the drug (Tomie, 1995). For example, humans drink alcohol from a cocktail glass, snort cocaine through a tooter, inhale marijuana from a pipe, or swallow a drug-filled capsule. When the user takes the drug, he sees the object and then feels the rewarding effects of the drug. Thus, the practice of employing an object to assist in drug-taking ensures that object-reward pairings will be experienced each time that the drug is taken. These object-reward pairings will induce Sign-Tracking, which will increase the chances that the drug will be taken whether or not the person intends to do it.
The phrase “Touching the Invisible” describes the behavior of the drug abuser who is unaware of the existence of Sign-Tracking but whose actions are highly influenced by it. Blind people have used the phrase “touching the invisible” to describe feeling the essence of an object when you can’t see it, but you know that it is there. This applies to Sign-Tracking behavior because Sign-Tracking of drug-taking is invisible. It is difficult to detect because it is readily mistaken for and easily passes for something quite different, intended drug-taking. In other words, you can’t see Sign-Tracking of drug-taking because it is perfectly camouflaged to be seen as an intended act of voluntary drug-taking, but it is, in fact, an involuntary and reflexive action. Sign-Tracking is the blind spot in the drug addiction process. The drug user does not understand why he cannot resist taking the drug. Though you are blind to it and can’t see it, you can certainly feel it. The drug addict is pulled into the act of drug-taking by the invisible force of the drug cue, the magnetic pull of the sight of the object used to consume the drug. Note that having an awareness of Sign-Tracking brings a whole new perspective to the problem, shining a light on a hidden aspect of the drug addiction process.
The goal of this short story is to educate the public about Sign-Tracking and how Sign-Tracking can play a role in the drug addiction process. With that in mind, our hope is that this story provides the reasoning tools that enable young people to see more clearly why it is dangerous to experiment with the recreational use of drugs. Countless drug addicts have said, “It makes no sense. I want to stop.” Drug rehabilitation clinics are filled with recovering addicts who are all too familiar with the feeling of being powerless in the face of temptation as they reach out and take drugs even though they are desperately trying to resist them. The story is also intended to provide a better understanding of the problem of drug addiction for family and friends in order to help them comprehend why their loved ones struggle so mightily to quit drugs. The primary aim of this endeavor is to inform a younger audience of the scientific insights into the dangers of drug use and to add to the arsenal of tools available to those who are dedicated to drug education and primary prevention of drug addiction. For readers interested in more information about Sign-Tracking and drug addiction, please read the Scientific Commentary which follows, The Tail of the Raccoon, Part III: Departures, and visit our educational website: www.tailoftheraccoon.com.
Breland, K., & Breland, M. (1961). The misbehavior of organisms. American Psychologist, 16, 681.
Tomie, A. (1995). CAM: An animal learning model of excessive and compulsive implement-assisted drug-taking in humans. Clinical Psychology Reviews, 15, 145-167.
Tomie, A. (1996). Locating reward cue at response manipulandum (CAM) induces symptoms of drug abuse. Neuroscience & Biobehavioral Reviews, 20, 505-535.
Tomie, A., Badawy, N., Rutyna, J. (2016). Sign-Tracking Model of Loss of Self-Control of Drug-Taking. In: Recent Advances in Substance Abuse. Open access e-book. Avid Science: Berlin. Published April 2016.
Tomie, A., & Sharma, N. (2013). Pavlovian Sign-Tracking Model of alcohol abuse. Current Drug Abuse Reviews, 6, 201-219.
Zito, B., & Tomie, A. (2014). The Tail of the Raccoon: Secrets of Addiction. Paperback, Createspace, 70 pages. Princeton, NJ: ZT Enterprises, LLC.