Wednesday, May 20, 2009

There's no Rat Race in Rat Park

"If you put a carton of eggs under a hydraulic press, it's true some of the eggs will crack before others, but the problem isn't the eggs. It's the press."
-Bruce Alexander

I'm sure many readers have heard of Bruce Alexander, retired research psychologist at Simon Fraser University in British Columbia turned addiction activist, and his study entitled 'Rat Park'. I first learned of this ultra-thought provoking study a few months back in the January 09' issue of O magazine. I've been considering the implications ever since and I think some readers may find it interesting, if they were not already aware.

Basically, this guy wanted to know whether drug addiction was biological or caused mainly by environment. Ahh, the biggest question, it's almost as bad as the chicken and the egg. Now before I go on, I want to state that I really do believe that there are biological factors which can lead to addiction (I mean, really, me, my brother, sister, mother, and multiple cousins are addicts in one way or another). But there is no doubt that environment plays a significant role, and I believe Alexander provides substantial evidence of such.

My understanding of the study is as follows: Alexander built two places for his rats to reside; one was designed using the typically dull and isolating cages of most labs rats as a model, whereas the other was a 200 sq. ft. rat paradise called Rat Park. In both models the rats had a choice of plain drinking water or water laced with sugar and morphine. Unsurprisingly, the rats living in the uncomfortable and confined quarters became instant addicts as past studies had confirmed. But in Rat Park, the majority of rats consistently opted for the plain water. Mind you, life was grand for these lucky little rats; and misery for their poor confined, dispirited counterparts. Most interesting is that many rats who entered Rat Park already addicted also tended to cut down and opt for plain water.

It is hard to deny that such findings suggest that addiction is at least partially affected by environmental factors. Alexander does not presume to claim that there are no biological factors which play a role in addiction. Hence the 'egg and and the press' quote; he simply believes that if our society did not put so much pressure and limitations on its members, it is likely the percentage of addicts would be considerably lower. It is important to note that this concept applies not only to drug addiction but to various other addictions as well. This could include alcohol, nicotine, gambling, work, shopping, Internet, sex, food, sugar, even video games. Alexander might argue that any activity a person turns to obsessively to seek relief from an uncomfortable environment by producing a surge in the the endorphin dopamine is an addiction caused by environment. Alexander says, "It is so much easier to believe that the drug takes people away than that the very civilization we live in is making life miserable for everybody". And I thinks that statement is true to a large extent. It is easier to blame the "evil drug" rather than examine ourselves as a society, which, of course, would be monumental and excruciating.

I think it's safe to say that Alexander may be on to something. Ideally, all animals, including humans are free to play, fight, mate, and forage. But in today's society, it must be acknowledged, that there is a much stronger emphasis on activities like work over play. We are the equivalent of caged rats; there is a reason it's called 'The Rat Race'. Humans living in distress seek relief. Sure, some of us have a lower threshold for what we are willing to tolerate as far as levels of discomfort, and that is where biology plays its role. But if we were more concerned with treating the disease (negative living conditions), rather than the symptoms (drug addiction), we may have a chance of coming anywhere close to a "cure". Once again, Alexander says it best: "There is no drug policy that will have much effect on addiction. I think that's one of our diversions: 'If we could just get the drug policy right, we'd solve our addiction problem.' I don't think that would touch it. The only way we'll ever touch the problem of addiction is by developing and fostering a viable culture."
Anyway, I'm not trying to write a research paper here, just an interesting point of view worth checking out.


Jeannie said...

I can certainly see what you are getting at. Unfortunately, none of us have a Bruce Alexander God to put us in paradise. We are stuck with life as we know it. And it is a struggle. It is a struggle that some are better equipped to handle than others. Others are fortunate to have excellent guidance coupled with excellent receptiveness to that guidance. Environment is more than just the physical dimensions we live in or the rich would have no cause to be addicted. I think there is likely some genetic factor combined with learned responses to stress combined with individual personality.
I think perhaps Alexander's experiment might have turned out somewhat different if the rats were offered other drugs as well. Alcohol, thc - anything that might provide a different kind of escape better suited for some rats. I think even in paradise, there would be more rats addicted to something. The morphine just didn't scratch the itch that some had so they left it alone.
Morphine might only be pleasurable to some, or it may only seem pleasurable depending on the physical environment. We might all be looking for something but don't have the opportunity or guts to experiment.

Nellie said...

Jeannie - you are totally right. We don't all have a BA God, I wish I did. I agree with you on all your points. I especially had not considered the fact the addiction rate would indeed be higher if more drugs had been offered. I mostly just wanted to relate this information becuase I think it's good food for thought. Of course people need more than food, water, shelter, and money. But I think the issues with our society are ones which affect even the wealthy. I thank you for commenting and becoming a follower, I know it can be time consuming to read and comment on everyone's blog. Thanks Again, and I'll check in again soon.

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