The Rat Park Experiment

by marin mikulic

There’s a study on addiction done by a Canadian psychologist Bruce K. Alexander. He explored the effects of addiction on lab rats that live in wire cages.​

To begin the experiment, Bruce installed two water drips for rats to drink from. One contained plain water. The other had water spiced with morphine.​

The rats preferred the spiced one. For the sake of getting high, they abandoned play, socialisation, sex, even food. Many of them punched the morphine button until the point of overdose.​

That’s it.​

Death by self-administration.​

Bruce then thought of another experiment. Together with his colleagues, he constructed the Rat Park - an environment 200 times the size of the normal rat cage, filled with boxes to hide in, natural materials, wood shavings, playthings, other rats, and two water drips.​

The point was to see whether nature and social connection affected addiction.​

author unknown

​They did.​

The Rat Park rats were, on the whole, a great deal less addicted to morphine. They drank more plain water, socialised, mated, and lived better lives overall, at least for the duration of the experiment.

Some, like the guy in this TED talk, concluded that the environment is the only factor causing addiction, that genetics has nothing to do with it. This is a lovely narrative, an unproven story that has taken the experiment’s findings too far.

​What’s proven though, in line with the experiment, is that the environment does affect the severity of addiction. Rats in wire cages find it harder to resist the seduction of heavy drugs compared to the rats on the outside.​

Now, addiction comes in many flavours. Morphine, heroin, cocaine - those are the extremes. But other, more quiet addictions abound. Distraction, alcohol, overeating, shopping, smartphones, pornography, negative thought, negative self-image, or even blaming others rather than taking responsibility, and so on.

Gina Jrel

​Take your pick. Add to the list. Everyone has something, even before the pandemic locked us in this human version of a rat cage.

What the Rat Park experiment suggests is that nature - this readily available Human Park - can help silence the demons of any addiction.

If anything above resonates with you, try and see if you can crack open the door.

Come outside.

You’ll find me there.

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