“Rat Park”: What Rats Wish They Could Tell You

Beth Childress
Teacher, author, and parent of adopted cat, Peeks -- read below for more :-)
Humanities

Jan 22,2018

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When it comes to addiction, I typically take scientists at their word. Scientific evidence? Oh yeah, I am sure your conclusions are rock solid. Thanks for the research!

What I didn’t realize was that the rock from which my understanding of addiction was built (and possibly yours) may have endured a small fracture — a critical piece that needs to be exposed.

Scientists’ studies repeatedly presented their evidence on the addictive nature of drugs by reporting behavior of rats, monkeys or other social creatures after they have been exposed to drugs. But before we treat addiction in ourselves, our loved ones or our patients, should we not consider all relevant animal studies?

 I didn’t – not until recently — mainly because I didn’t know about it.

I ran across a gentleman on a TedTalk who first caught my attention when he spoke of this “other side” of the rat addiction experiment that was new to me. Then, with interest piqued, I started delving more deeply, searching for more research-based evidence in support of this “other side” or theory. Ted Talker was not alone. My guess is there may be many undisclosed experiments, but here is one important one, I think.

To what am I referring?   Two words – Rat Park.

In the 1970s, scientists repeatedly placed a single rat in a single cage and the only single liquid refreshment available to him or her was morphine-induced water. (By the way, morphine morphs to heroin in the body but too much red tape eliminated the option of feeding straight heroin to rats)

The nerve!

Also, because rats prefer sweet tastes to bitter ones, the scientists laced water with sugar to disguise the bitterness of morphine.

For, if rats never drank the morphine water, what experiments would we have to show about addiction?

But back to my point…

They presented this situation to the rat for 47 -57 days (I’ve heard both numbers). So for “fifty something odd days,” each rat drank morphine-laced water…alone..in a cold, cramped cage. Why did they drink it? Well, that was all that was offered to them. They didn’t have a Dasani machine at their disposal.

These rats developed, of course, a physiological addiction.  So, after 47 days or so, when Mr. or Mrs. Rat, who stayed alone in his cold, cramped cage  was introduced to two beverage options– tap water or drug water – Mr. or Mrs. Rat  chose  the drug water every time. He could not go nor did he want to go without the drug water. He was an addict who had no desire to recover. What? Left alone in a cold, cramped, smelly environment – who wouldn’t want the drugs?

But there is another side of the story – the missing piece, if you will.

After 57 or so days of exclusive exposure to morphine-laced water….

The inhabitants of Rat Park preferred  the tap.

What?

Those in Rat Park who had been drinking drug water exclusively for 57 or so days were  also introduced to two choices of liquid refreshment – morphine water or tap. Most residents of Rat hall immediately shunned the drug water. The few that drank the opiate at first became less and less interested in the opiate water, weaning themselves off of it until they drank exclusively the tap. Why? Well, here’s one theory.

Rats are social animals. So, when they are locked inside a cramped cage with no other rats to share food, drink, wheels, wood, or sex, they are going to choose the only pleasure-inducing agent in their destitute space. The only pleasure available to them in the cage was the morphine-induced water. So to morphine they go!

The rats in Rat Park had the same two choices – the tap water or the drug water.

But instead of being isolated to one cage, alone, the lively members of Rat Park (16-20 of each sex) had a home that was 200 times the size of a rat cage with plenty of wood, cheese, wheels and an abundance of opposite-sex companions with whom they could play and fool around.

So here is the other side of the scientific experiment.

Create a nurturing, fun, playful and spacious environment to share with male and female rats and…drum roll please:  Mr. or Mrs. Rat will become  increasingly less interested in opiates.

So what?

I think a conclusion may be drawn here. Don’t you? If rats are social by nature and need other rats with which to bond, how much more are we humans (who are indeed social by nature) in need of bonding? So take away our socialization (whether we are rats or humans), isolate us to a cage, and we will reach for the magic water to become our companion.

To begin with, I would suggest that if I lived in Rat Park or “Human Park” most of my life, I may not need to get away from the psychologically distressing details of my environment

But if literally or figuratively I’m alone, isolated, uncomfortable, pained or depressed: if you offer me opiates for 57 days and then present me with a healthier choice (water) after you have placed me back in my same, sorry insolvent environment, I’m going back to that drug!

 No contest! 

Even after our addictions have been identified, after our hospitalization is over, if we go back to being alone, we are going to use again – repeatedly. We need not only to bond but to live in a comfortable environment where we feel safe. So even after re-hab, if either of these conditions is missing, we’ll form or renew our bonds with drugs.

The feeling of isolation —  whether it is literal or emotional —  makes us vulnerable and  susceptible to temptations of drug abuse. In times like these, our drugs of choice allure us, inviting us to come and play with them:

              “Come join me”, they taunt, tantalizingly, “I’ll give you the escape or pleasure you need. Pop me, drop me, melt me, shoot me, snort me, smoke me or drink me.”

(Well, the rats may not have gone to the trouble of melting anything down since it was already in accessible form.) Plus, the cage could hardly hold a lighter and a spoon — much less a needle.

But back to my point…

I can’t speak for rats, but I do not believe they are happy without companionship, without a wheel, without toys and without sufficient space.

 Furthermore, if we stay alone, we (like the sad, unfortunate rats) run the risk of becoming a statistic.

And, as we know, The U.S. and Canada are experiencing record numbers of “statistics” just like Portugal did over a decade ago.

But Portugal seems quite fond of treating rat addicts appropriately — and humans too.

The closest I’ve come to Portugal is seeing a Portuguese Man-of War wrapped around my Dad’s left leg when I was a little girl.

 So about their world I know very little – but I do know that they believe their addicts deserve play — they  believe in Rat Park – and their statistics show that it’s a great place to start. (See:  Vibes, John. “Rat Park Heroin Experiment” shows cultural roots of drug addiction April 2, 2014. “A forgotten experiment conducted in 1978 showed that an unpleasant environment is one of the primary causal factors of addiction.”

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