In a previous post, we discussed the concept of addiction as an intimacy disorder, noting that addicts of all types heal best in a community of recovery. This week, we examine that concept further, starting with one of the all-time great illustrations of it – Canadian researcher Bruce Alexander’s “Rat Park” experiments that took place in the late 1970s.
Before Alexander’s research, it was generally thought that pleasure was the primary driver of addiction. Take an addictive drug or engage in an addictive behavior, feel pleasure, and then want to feel that pleasure again. And again and again. That said, based solely on the fact that plenty of people ingest potentially addictive substances and engage in potentially addictive behaviors but don’t become addicts, Alexander hypothesized that pleasure and enjoyment are not the underlying drivers of addiction.
Alexander first took a second look at all of the existing studies on addiction – mostly studies involving rats and opiate-infused water. Typically, a rat was placed in a cage with two bottles of water to choose from – regular water and opiate water. Invariably, the rats got hooked and overdosed on the opiate water. Based on this, early researchers concluded that the out-of-control search for pleasure was the sole or at least primary driver of addictive behavior. Which meant that addicts were generally thought of as weak-willed degenerates unable to control themselves.
Alexander disagreed with this conclusion. He felt it was reached only because previous experiments were flawed. First and foremost, he was bothered by the fact that rats were placed in cages alone with no potential for stimulation other than the drugged water. With nothing else to do, of course they got high. To test his theory, Alexander created The Rat Park, a cage approximately 200 times larger than the typical isolation cage, with Hamster wheels and toys to play with, lots of tasty food, and spaces for mating and raising litters. And he put not one rat, but 20 rats (both male and female) into the cage. He also gave them the option to drink regular water or opiate water.
And guess what? The rats uniformly ignored the opiate water. They seemed much more interested in typical communal rat activities like playing, fighting, eating, and mating. Even rats who’d previously been isolated and drinking only the drugged water left it alone when they were placed in the rat park. With a little bit of social stimulation and connection, addiction in rats disappeared.
Of course, humans are a bit more complicated than rats. We can’t just put a human addict in the human version of a rat park and expect that person to suddenly be content with life and cured of addiction. Primarily because human addicts nearly always have unresolved early-life trauma that drives them away from interpersonal support and connection and into addiction. To overcome this, human addicts must develop a sense of earned security and attachment.
We don’t need to do that with addicted rats because rat psyches are considerably less complex than human psyches. You can take an addicted rat and toss it into healthy socialization and the rat will quickly and easily push addiction to the curb, opting instead for healthier rat activities and connections.
People don’t work that way. With human addicts, there is further work to be done. Human addicts must learn to connect in healthy ways. Usually, this process starts with addiction treatment and continues with long-term therapy, 12-step groups, and various other healthy and healing relationships. As stated in a previous blog, human addicts need to develop a community of recovery that will help them slowly but steadily begin to trust and connect with supportive, empathetic, loving people.