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Question: Why is it that celebrities seem to overdose only in hotels, rather than in their or their friends’ houses?

Answer: Ivan Pavlov was the first to explain in the late 1800’s that classical conditioning is a powerful tool in human behavior[1]. He showed us that the environment we’re currently in can have a large effect on our actions, but also in parts of our body that we don’t know about.

Pavlov’s experiments with canine salivation[2] led him to discover the beginnings of classical conditioning[3]. The dogs in his experiment began to make associations between the sound of footsteps (a scientist bringing powdered food) and food. Soon, dogs would salivate (preemptively prepare their mouth for food) at the mere sound of footsteps. Later experiments paired the sound of a bell with food and had the same result[2]. In humans, we see this every day—for example, smelling food and beginning to salivate. The smell of food tells our body there is food nearby, and usually when there’s food nearby, we are about to eat it. And when the body knows we’re about to eat food, it prepares itself in various ways, including the increased production of saliva (which is used to break down food).

Several studies[4][5][6] have been done on this classical conditioning effect and how it relates to drug tolerance, and studies show that the body learns to prepare itself for more than just food. If a person repeatedly sneaks out to an abandoned building to do drugs, for example, the body soon begins to make an association between the abandoned building and the act of doing drugs there. Once that association is built, the body begins to try to predict what is going to happen when it comes into contact with the abandoned building. From experience, the body has associated environmental cues from this particular building with the use of drugs. And so when the body comes into contact with that building (you step through the front door, or maybe even just thinking about going), your body starts to physically brace itself against the harmful effects of drugs[5].

One study injected rats with heroin several times and looked at the results: “Of the rats that had never been previously injected with heroin, there was a 96% mortality rate. There was a 64% mortality rate with rats that were administered heroin in an alternative room to where they had previously been injected with the drug. Of the group of rats that received heroin injections in the same environment, there was only a 30% mortality rate.”[5]

The preconditioning prepares your body for the same attack on its system that it received the last time you were in this particular place doing this particular activity, and therefore you begin to build up a tolerance based entirely on the environment and preconditioning. With repeated offenses, the association will grow stronger and your preparation and tolerance levels will rise[7].

This preconditioning is designed to keep you safe. The body attempts to predict what is about to happen so it can best protect you against it.

However, it also presents a huge danger.

A person (or, as the question asks, celebrity) may be used to doing drugs in a certain place—their home, their friend’s home, or somewhere else private—and “know” their tolerance level. They know how much of a drug they usually take.

However, when that same person finds a new location (either with new friends or, in the case of celebrities, traveling) this environmental-cued preconditioning no longer exists[8]. A person might check into a hotel (a private place, just like at home, but without giving the brain its environmental cues to prepare the body) and take the same amount of drugs they “normally” take. The body hasn’t prepared itself, and although the body might have built up a slight non-environmentally-based tolerance over time, there is still a significant difference in the tolerance level posed in a new place[8].

A new environment catches the body off-guard where it hasn’t steeled itself for heavy drug use. This unfortunate phenomenon is one explanation used to explain why celebrities seem to overdose only in hotels, rather than in their or their friends’ houses.


[1] http://nobelprize.org/educational/medicine/pavlov/readmore.html
[2] http://www.learning-theories.com/classical-conditioning-pavlov.html
[3] http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Classical_conditioning
[4] http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Little_Albert_experiment
[5] http://serendip.brynmawr.edu/bb/neuro/neuro03/web1/crichards.html
[6] http://home.cc.umanitoba.ca/~mdlee/Teaching/siegel.html
[7] http://www.psywww.com/intropsych/ch05_conditioning/conditioning_and_drug…
[8] http://www.druglibrary.org/schaffer/heroin/heroin2.htm