Food for thought
There are many views of addiction that persist today. There is a purely biological view that explains addiction in terms of genetics and the drugs’ effects on the brain. There is, however, also an environmental view on addiction that considers it as something that arises from the individual’s environment. This view is linked to a study done a few decades back by Bruce Alexander, popularly known as the Rat Park Experiment.
The Rat Park Experiment had a simple enough premise. It featured two groups of rats. One group was placed in a more or less standard lab environment that involved little stimulation and social isolation from other rats. The rats were kept in cages and had a limited access to anything that makes a rat’s life pleasant. The other group of rats, however, were placed in very different conditions. They had a free area to explore, interaction with other rats, and enough stimulation to keep them busy, this being the titular rat park. Both groups of rats, those living in bad conditions and in the relative comfort of the rat park, were then given the option to choose between drinking morphine solution and plain water after both groups had been exposed to morphine solution exclusively. The results were surprising.
It was seen that the rats who lived in lab cages drank significantly more morphine solution than those living in the rat park. These rats tended to prefer water even after they had been drinking the drug. This study was significant because it suggested that addiction was not purely biological and associated with the effects that drugs have on the brain.
If addiction was purely biological, then the rats in both situations would continue to drink morphine after exposed to it and would consistently prefer it over plain water. However, this suggested that stimulation and other environmental factors contributed to the choices of one group of rats to take the drug but to the others’ decision not to. To further support this idea, when the rats from the lab cages were moved to the rat park, their consumption of morphine solution also was significantly lower.
So, what is the explanation behind this study? It suggests that addiction is associated not only with the biological effects of the drug but also with the environment in which the person with addiction lives. In rats, an optimal environment with enough stimulation, social interaction, and things to do provided enough incentives not to do drugs. It has also been suggested that the morphine might have impaired the rat’s behavior associated with better social results, like mating or fighting. In addition to this, the rats in the blab cages likely had high levels of stress and anxiety, which could be reduced by using the morphine solution.
Alexander has argued that this study shows that addiction is fundamentally environmental and not biological, which is clearly a controversial point of view. However, the study does suggest that the environment in which a person lives is also very significant in terms of whether they develop a substance abuse problem or not. Some key issues, as seen here, are associated with stimulation vs. boredom, connection vs. isolation, and stress vs. relaxation.
People, clearly, are not as easily pleased as rats, however, these issues are significant for those battling addiction or wanting to avoid it. An environment that is lacking in stimulation, where the person has few alternatives to drugs in terms of recreation, may encourage addiction. Social connections are important as well. When the person feels lonely or lacking in connections, this might promote addiction too. Stress or pain or the symptoms of mental illness that remain untreated and unaddressed can also promote addiction.
The rat park study does not debunk the biological elements of addiction but it brings the importance of environmental factors to the table. One important lesson is that to promote recovery and prevent addiction, it is important to have a favorable environment where the person can feel stimulated, connected, and relaxed.
The rat park study shows that addiction is more complex than just the biological impact of a drug, so this needs to be taken into consideration for a successful addiction prevention and recovery. Building a favorable environment for a diverse population is not as easy as providing the rats with a space to explore, mate, and fight in but it is possible to create environments with more stimulation, that promote connections between people, and that are more favorable to live in. This can be a way to help with recovery and prevent addiction.
Alexander. B. (2010). The View from the Rat Park. http://www.brucekalexander.com/articles-speeches/rat-park/148-addiction-the-view-from-rat-park
To learn about information related our awesome drug free community, please reach Boston Sober Living and we will help guide you or your family through the recovery process!