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Addiction and the rat park experiment 1

Addiction and the Rat Park Experiment

The make of your social and physical surroundings also have undeniable influence on the way your reward circuits behave


The importance of strong social support during substance abuse treatment can be shown in comparison to one addiction experiment.


Let’s go back to 1978. We find ourselves in Canada, at the addiction laboratory at Simon Fraser University. Professor Bruce K. Alexander and his colleagues are amidst a study they called the “Rat Park Experiment”. They’re trying to find out whether continued drug addiction is entirely caused by the effects of consummation, or could outside factors also have an influence? To find out, Alexander split the rats into two groups and placed them in two separated and distinct cages. The first group was single, isolated and placed in a standard cage. The second half was placed in the so-called “Rat Park”. What is it? It’s a huge, well-furnished cage with good food, attractions and lots of opportunities to socialize.


In this cage, rats could play, run, fight and take part in any and all social interactions. Both types of cages had two options: to consume water, or water mixed with morphine. The experiment showed that the isolated rats in metal cages were not only far quicker to start drinking the morphine-water mix, but they also consumed it in much larger quantities. Furthermore, the consumption of morphine-water was nineteen times higher in isolated cages than in the Rat Park. Alexander’s follow-up studies found that rats that had been stuck in drugged isolation for as many as 57 days voluntarily went through withdrawal and kicked their habit once transferred to the Rat Park.


We can safely conclude that well-socialized rats didn’t prefer the drugged water, and there were no drug-related fatalities. While all the rats who were alone became heavy users, none of the rats from the park did.

What about humans?

Now let's bring to attention some practical implications within those findings that point to the power of connecting. The Rat Park experiment obviously demonstrates that the standard “exposure model” of addiction is quite incomplete. No matter how potent the substance is, it’s apparent that the drug itself is never the complete picture in any case of addiction. The make of your social and physical surroundings also have an undeniable influence on the way your reward circuits behave.


We don't have an equivalent experiment on humans per se, but we can draw from real life experiences of the unfortunate troops who were active during the Vietnam war. In Vietnam, 20 percent of all American troops were using heroin. That caused major concern back home. News reports stressed that with the end of the war, there will be hundreds of thousands of addicts on the streets. The soldiers who were using, once brought home, were under close study. The Archives of General Psychiatry did a detailed study and their findings were, shockingly, in concordance with the Rat Park experiment. The returned soldiers most often didn’t go into rehab or even withdrawal. In fact, 95% of users just stopped.

Portuguese ''experiment''

Another example where we can draw parallels with the Rat Park experiment is in Portugal. In the year 2000, 1% of the Portuguese population was addicted to heroin. To fight this issue, Portugal created a massive program aimed at employing addicts and offering them microloans to set up small businesses. The goal was to give every addict a strong reason to get out of bed every morning, and help them rediscover and strengthen bonds with the whole of society. Fifteen years later drug use is significantly down, according to all studies.


We hope you have drawn an important conclusion from this experiment and that it’s emboldened you to make your friends, family and activities a part of the solution to the problem.