Mixed Messages –  

Aug. 13, 2020 – But in the late 1970s, a young Canadian psychologist named Bruce Alexander began to ponder a divergent hypothesis. What if it wasn’t just the drugs’ addictive nature that led to the rats’ overdose and death? What if the bare, featureless cages and the rat’s forced solitude were playing a significant role? Alexander speculated that, given an enriched environment, ample mental stimulation and the opportunity to engage with numerous other rats, their preference for the drugged water would plummet, and overdose and death would wane as a result.

Armed with some basic hand tools and a pickup load of plywood, Alexander soon constructed a crude colony roughly two-hundred times the size of a traditional laboratory cage. Within its laminated walls, Alexander placed numerous rats of both genders, an array of wheels and balls and, of course, the same two bottles of water – one laced, and one unadulterated.

Inside of his fondly-dubbed “Rat Park,” Alexander’s hypothesis was quickly borne out.

In the makeshift rodent playground on his laboratory floor at Simon Fraser University in British Columbia, the consumption of drugged water plummeted compared to the prior experiments (the rats actually preferred drinking the plain water) and, while it wasn’t avoided all together, the amount of laced water that the rats did choose to consume no longer led to overdose or death. In the context of a stimulating and socially-rich environment, Alexander concluded, the addictive nature of the drugged water appeared to have been displaced and diminished.

Now, of course, these were laboratory rats, not humans. And sadly many of us can probably name someone in our lives who seemingly “had it all,” and yet still succumbed to the ravaging perils of addiction. Clearly, there are many points that could be made about why his experiment didn’t provide humanity with the surefire antidote to addiction one might have hoped.

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