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Rat Park and Other Children's Stories
February 12, 2009 8:21 AM   Subscribe

Addiction: thousands of studies have been done claiming that it is a disease, often using rats in isolated cages with a bar-press system of delivery, showing they will repeatedly get high even if it means starving to death. Bruce Alexander was a skeptic, questioning the ecological validity of all such results: "They were said to prove that these kinds of dope are irresistible, and that’s it, that’s the end of the addiction story right there," and after delivering one particularly fruitless seminar in 1976, he decided to build Rat Park to conduct his own studies...

Rat Park was "an alternative laboratory environment constructed around the need of the subjects rather than the experimenters. A colony of rats, who are naturally gregarious, were allowed to roam together in a large vivarium enriched with wheels, balls and other playthings, on a deep bed of aromatic cedar shavings and with plenty of space for breeding and private interactions. Pleasant woodland vistas were even painted on the surrounding walls. In this situation, the rats' responses to drugs such as opiates were transformed..." (1)

"The denizens of Rat Park overwhelmingly preferred plain water to morphine (the test produced statistical confidence levels of over 99.9 percent). Even when Alexander tried to seduce his rats by sweetening the morphine, the ones in Rat Park drank far less than the ones in cages. Only when he added naloxone, which eliminates morphine’s narcotic effects, did the rats in Rat Park start drinking from the water-sugar-morphine bottle. They wanted the sweet water, but not if it made them high...

In a variation he calls “Kicking the Habit,” Alexander gave rats in both environments nothing but morphine-laced water for fifty-seven days, until they were physically dependent on the drug. But as soon as they had a choice between plain water and morphine, the animals in Rat Park switched to plain water more often than the caged rats did, voluntarily putting themselves through the discomfort of withdrawal to do so...

Rat Park showed that a rat’s environment, not the availability of drugs, leads to dependence. In a normal setting, a narcotic is an impediment to what rats typically do: fight, play, forage, mate. But a caged rat can’t do those things. It’s no surprise that a distressed animal with access to narcotics would use them to seek relief." (2)

Bruce Alexander recently finished a book synthesizing these findings into a much larger picture. "The Globalisation of Addiction" is his attempt to broaden the scope of this new understanding, applying it to the world at large. From the description, "[this] book argues that the most effective response to a growing addiction problem is a social and political one, rather than an individual one. Such a solution would not put the doctors, psychologists, social workers, policemen, and priests out of work, but it would incorporate their practices in a larger social project. The project is to reshape society with enough force and imagination to enable people to find social integration and meaning in everyday life. Then great numbers of them would not need to fill their inner void with addictions."

More (related) Reading:
Rat Park and Other Children's Stories
"Effect of Early and Later Colony Housing on Oral Ingestion of Morphine in Rats" (the original Rat Park white paper).
A related article by Dr. Alexander, "The Myth of Drug-Induced Addiction"
Nthposition Online Magazine, Book Review of "The Globalisation of Addiction"
The Walrus Magazine, "Rat Trap: Why Canada’s drug policy won’t check addiction"
posted by tybeet (47 comments total) 72 users marked this as a favorite

 
Everyone knows rats are into speed, not dope.
posted by The Whelk at 8:27 AM on February 12, 2009 [4 favorites]


At my desk, there's a button I can press to get a rat high. I can press it all day long. I'm starting to get hungry, but the rat button beckons to me.
posted by FatherDagon at 8:28 AM on February 12, 2009 [12 favorites]


This is pretty remarkable. It fits nicely with the idea of drugs as a symptom of human misery, rather than its cause. Of course, one must be very cautious in extrapolating from rat behavior to human behavior.

Academically, I would find it interesting to know what other kinds of stressors provoke addictive behavior in rats (other than small living space). Would hunger have a similar effect? Bright lights? Loud noise? Insomnia?

But I wouldn't want anyone to do that experiment, because I love rats, and it ain't right to mess with them like that.
posted by Salvor Hardin at 8:37 AM on February 12, 2009


Pasages in Malibu is the ad in the RSS feed for this FFP.
posted by fixedgear at 8:37 AM on February 12, 2009


Very interesting. I wonder what a food version of this experiment would show. Like, if you give caged rats more food than they need, do they get fat? What about parked rats?
posted by DU at 8:39 AM on February 12, 2009


Please build me a park to run around in and live freely, with no worries about sustenance or shelter.

Then offer me some heroin.

I bet I won't take it.
posted by orville sash at 8:46 AM on February 12, 2009 [13 favorites]


The project is to reshape society with enough force and imagination to enable people to find social integration and meaning in everyday life.

Is that all?
posted by ericbop at 8:56 AM on February 12, 2009 [4 favorites]


I'm pretty sure that if all I had was food, shelter and time, I'd eventually take up heroin. At least give me pencil and paper!
posted by DU at 9:00 AM on February 12, 2009 [1 favorite]


This study is especially interesting considering the discovery of adult neurogenesis in the mid 90s. For decades, scientists believed that adult brain growth was impossible because studies with caged rats showed no brain growth. Put the rats in a stimulating environment, however, and there's enough brain activity going on to provoke the growth of new neurons. Perhaps stress, then, is not the primary factor behind the caged group's morphine preference. Maybe it's stimulation.

To take a much larger leap, look at schooling in Baltimore and Anacostia compared to areas with higher property taxes and better-funded school districts. Look at the differential rates of drug use between these two groups. I'll bet anyone a Yuengling that you'll find a negative correlation between drug use and academic stimulation, and I'll make a side bet that outlier data will come from classrooms with exceptional (-ly bad in the suburbs, -ly good in the city) teachers.
posted by The White Hat at 9:01 AM on February 12, 2009 [3 favorites]


At my desk, there's a button I can press to get a rat high. I can press it all day long.

Holy crap, I have got to get FileMaker Pro 10.
posted by Greg Nog at 9:04 AM on February 12, 2009 [3 favorites]


I want to see those rats doing 8 hour tech support shifts, and be on-call on their time off, and then see what they do when they come home.

If such an experiment can be done, I'd appreciate if we could get some of those rats to help fill in here.
posted by krinklyfig at 9:05 AM on February 12, 2009 [9 favorites]


Thanks for sharing this. I'd never heard of this very sensible research before.
posted by serazin at 9:08 AM on February 12, 2009


[this] book argues that the most effective response to a growing addiction problem is a social and political one, rather than an individual one. Such a solution would not put the doctors, psychologists, social workers, policemen, and priests out of work, but it would incorporate their practices in a larger social project.

I was with him until this part. Good doctors, psychologists, social workers, policement, and priests are already trying to work to change society, not just address individual addiction. They are stymied by the rest of the world who insist that there's nothing wrong with society and anyone's addiction must be due to their own personal failings.

You only have to read any thread on education or crime on Metafilter to see that even enlightened people are perfectly willing to blame the poor for the predicament and completely ignore the complicity of the rest of us.
posted by hydropsyche at 9:15 AM on February 12, 2009 [1 favorite]


Interesting that the rats began drinking the alternate water not because it got them high, but because sugar was added. Implications for obesity? Diabetes?

Also, since rats are naturally gregarious, if you take an unexposed rat and place it in an environment where his fellow rats are addicted, would he be more likely to become addicted (in short, the effects of peer pressure)?

Just some thoughts.
posted by wayofthedodo at 9:27 AM on February 12, 2009 [1 favorite]


Thanks for the post. There's some addiction in my own family, and by and large, I usually feel that I can't blame those individuals, because they have been through some serious misery; in their shoes, can't say I wouldn't reach for comfort anywhere I could, either.

I wish that this study was likely to change how we treat drug addiction in this society, but I doubt it. Can't mollycoddle those dirty druggy freaks!
posted by emjaybee at 9:42 AM on February 12, 2009


On the topic of environment and addiction, there are the studies on heroin-addicted Vietnam veterans.
posted by daksya at 9:47 AM on February 12, 2009


growing addiction problem

Not that it's not still a problem, but:
Illicit drug use by the Nation’s adolescents is declining for almost all specific types of drugs. When data for 8th-, 10th-, and 12th-graders are combined, they show that overall, past-month illicit drug use declined by 24 percent between 2001 and 2007, dropping from 19.4 percent to 14.8 percent.
Source
posted by desjardins at 9:53 AM on February 12, 2009


I am glad to see this. I've never been comfortable with the disease theory of addiction; It is too pat and explains nothing. Addiction ain't the only symptom of our diseased society, either.
posted by Hobgoblin at 9:58 AM on February 12, 2009


past-month illicit drug use declined by 24 percent between 2001 and 2007

Yeah, let's see what happens when this economy prevents them from getting jobs. Or going to college.
posted by spicynuts at 10:00 AM on February 12, 2009 [1 favorite]


desjardins: The sentence immediately after the one you quoted is, "The downward trend in illicit drug use has been driven largely by declines in marijuana smoking.". Cocaine use has remained stable, whereas heroin isn't mentioned. When I ponder on "growing addiction problem", my first thought isn't about marijuana.
posted by daksya at 10:08 AM on February 12, 2009 [1 favorite]


the free-will people are going to be very upset about this. my sister works for the salvation army and is pretty adamant that the addicts she "serves" are there because they're weak in the face of temptation. to her addiction is a rational choice.

if you told her that she (along with the rest of us) was partially responsible her head might explode!
posted by klanawa at 10:12 AM on February 12, 2009 [1 favorite]


My functional, happy and stimulating life in Rat Park is blighted by a pointless and troublesome nicotine addiction. I fight it regularly with my dependency on exercise-induced endorphins. And heaven help anyone who comes between me and my daily caffeine shots.

As an addict, I'm struggling to see what this study has to offer our broader understanding of addiction in general, other than narcotic drugs might be more appealing to individuals with nothing better to do.

Also, am I the only one to spot that the original study was rejected by both Science and Nature? I can't believe this is just because it was done in Vancouver.
posted by Elizabeth the Thirteenth at 10:15 AM on February 12, 2009 [4 favorites]


Very little science actually gets published in Science or Nature. Most submissions to both of them get rejected. That's why there are thousands of other journals.
posted by hydropsyche at 10:29 AM on February 12, 2009 [4 favorites]


Also, am I the only one to spot that the original study was rejected by both Science and Nature? I can't believe this is just because it was done in Vancouver.

Is your implication that anything not accepted by the mainstream is therefore deficient?
posted by TypographicalError at 10:31 AM on February 12, 2009


We're living in a PKD novel. But don't let the Man know that you know, bad things happen.
posted by Meatbomb at 10:33 AM on February 12, 2009 [3 favorites]


There may be a few problems with the assertion that kids are using fewer drugs. Any reduction in use of "illicit" drugs is being balanced out by increased use of prescription drugs.
posted by gingerbeer at 10:57 AM on February 12, 2009 [1 favorite]


Is your implication that anything not accepted by the mainstream is therefore deficient?

Not at all. But scientific research where peer review has revealed a) problems with methodology and b) results which defy exact reproduction might well be deficient.
posted by Elizabeth the Thirteenth at 10:58 AM on February 12, 2009


"I'll bet anyone a Yuengling that you'll find a negative correlation between drug use and academic stimulation, and I'll make a side bet that outlier data will come from classrooms with exceptional (-ly bad in the suburbs, -ly good in the city) teachers."

I think you would find exceptions with the best schools because the students have more money to buy drugs. All of the kids I knew from college that went to boarding school did far more drugs on average than the poor kids that went to my high school, and that includes the gang members.
posted by SouthCNorthNY at 11:15 AM on February 12, 2009 [1 favorite]


So, if the government wants to cut the number of addicts, money towards the war on drugs would be better spent on programs to help make life better? I never exactly made the connection directly, although I am generally pro-legalization and for government programs.

About the rats liking sweet water: I think the big difference is that they're neurologically hardwired to like sweet things. It's unquestionably certain to them that sweet things are a great thing to find in nature, and, as scavengers in nature, they should take advantage to get vital nutrients. Rats with fruit eat a lot, and don't get that sick, IIRC, but rats with pure lard or pure sugar will eat so much that they face the same health consequences humans face with out of control eating. The fact they avoid morphine makes it all the more clear that a mammal with a good life will try to avoid consuming intoxicants on a regular basis. The connection between morphine and the high is a learned connection, but they're probably also connecting the displeasure of coming off the high and realize it's a net loss in that environment. They probably don't avoid sugar, though, as the consequences are too far in the future for the mice to put two and two together.

However, these results are very interesting, but I fear I may have been anthropomorphizing the results. What would produce more compelling results, in my opinion, would be a test with a more neurologically complex animal, such as pigs or chimps. Of course, that introduces more ethical concerns and raises the expense significantly, but there's a huge gap in terms of the ability to predict the results, observe peers on the drug, and plan out behaviors.
posted by mccarty.tim at 11:27 AM on February 12, 2009 [2 favorites]


Illicit drug use by the Nation’s adolescents is declining for almost all specific types of drugs. When data for 8th-, 10th-, and 12th-graders are combined, they show that overall, past-month illicit drug use declined by 24 percent between 2001 and 2007, dropping from 19.4 percent to 14.8 percent.

1) Legalize it. Then illicit drug use will become zero.

2) Drug use is not addiction.

3) Why do studies like this always focus on illicit drugs, when we have a lot of legal drugs with far worse side-effects and addiction potential?

4) Rats are not humans.

5) I'd bet that 90% of the species on this planet would drink the sweetened water. I might lose the bet, but I don't think there's much to it. Extra carbs and energy or plain water? These are rats we're talking about, right?
posted by Chuffy at 11:31 AM on February 12, 2009


Chuffy: "3) Why do studies like this always focus on illicit drugs, when we have a lot of legal drugs with far worse side-effects and addiction potential?"

I don't think legality really matters since opiates are spread across the spectrum right through from heroin to oxycodone. This study used morphine, which is considered the prototypical opiate, and has a huge potential for abuse.

It would be interesting to see follow-up studies that use stimulants rather than analgesics, to see if this can completely generalize to "addiction".
posted by tybeet at 11:57 AM on February 12, 2009


But scientific research where peer review has revealed a) problems with methodology and b) results which defy exact reproduction might well be deficient.

Nature and Science frequently reject articles without sending them out for peer review, purely on the basis of whether or the editors find the articles interesting enough. Its entirely possible that the article was rejected by these journals because they didn't think it was "cool" enough.
posted by Hutch at 12:10 PM on February 12, 2009


Thanks for the links, that is very interesting and I hadn't seen the research before.

Speaking as someone currently trying to kick a nicotine addiction, I have to say that while the implications of the study may be true, they don't seem very helpful to an addicted individual. Telling an addict that it's not their fault but society's would seem to undermine an individuals confidence in their ability to quit. Which is all we've really got, when it comes down to it.
posted by threeturtles at 1:25 PM on February 12, 2009


What's amazing is that Stanton Peele publicized these findings decades ago and people still finding them surprising. They are common knowledge to anyone who actually studies the literature on addiction (and the practice of addictions work in most of Europe is based on them) but the media relentlessly sticks to its myths and only presents this stuff as "wow isn't this weird" and then goes back to "drugs! evil! latest instant addiction!" sigh.
posted by Maias at 2:54 PM on February 12, 2009


threeturtles Telling an addict that it's not their fault but society's would seem to undermine an individuals confidence in their ability to quit.

Not necessarily. It's not so much that it's your environment's fault that you're addicted, but that your environment is facilitating your addiction. The implication is that if you change absolutely nothing in your life except that you quit smoking, you will become more miserable, because you're smoking for a reason. Whereas if you changed the right elements of your environment, you would feel less of a desire to smoke. Finding out what the right elements are is the problem, of course.
posted by aeschenkarnos at 3:38 PM on February 12, 2009 [2 favorites]


There is a chapter on the Rat Park work in Lauren Slater's excellent Opening Skinner's Box. It is a fascinating account and a superb book.
posted by Jode at 3:43 PM on February 12, 2009


threeturtles, I think the implication of the study is that rats will not seek out addictive substances when their psychological and physical needs are being met. Happy, well adjusted rats avoid morphine because getting high takes away from the amount of time they can spend playing and eating and interacting and so forth. Extending this implication to humans (which may or may not be accurate) implies that we also seek out addictive substances to fill the void when our needs aren't being met in some way.

Therefore, the takeaway here (IMO) is that people who want to reduce their dependence on addictive substances should try to identify the physical and psychological areas in their life where they are deficient, and fill those voids with the things they actually want instead of the addictive substances. It's not a 100% instant cure or anything, but it seems reasonable enough to assume that people who build Human Parks for themselves to live in will have a better chance of kicking addictions than those who stay mired in the same lifestyle cages they were in before.
posted by Kevin Street at 3:44 PM on February 12, 2009 [1 favorite]


It should be understood (as some have intimated) that the "rejection" from Nature and Science probably has nothing to do with any problem with the experiment. Nature and Science are not infinitely big - they reject good science from good scientists all the time. They have to select for the papers their editors deem more important.
posted by Salvor Hardin at 4:18 PM on February 12, 2009


Elizabeth the Thirteenth, many of those critics as described in the wikipedia article did not give reasons to justify that the study was unsound.

I found one that theorizes that Alexander accidentally was using addiction resistant rats and in Opening Skinner's Box the author makes the criticism that the rat park may be too ideal for the rats and therefore a poor model.

I'm having trouble finding valid criticism (i.e. provides a coherent line reasoning and/or comes from another peer reviewed journal) of this study. Admittedly I have not looked very hard (yet). Has anyone else found anything?

Not that Alexanders work is definitive or anything, but criticism of results ought not be taken at face value if one is attempting to critically examining the same results they criticize.
posted by Matt Oneiros at 5:05 PM on February 12, 2009


I would suggest that the emotional presentation here is somewhat backwards. Rats in a normal (or perhaps slightly better than average) environment avoided or limited their drug use. Rats thrown into a lonely featureless hell-hole abused drugs.

Unfortunately, due to monetary and space restrictions, a lot of research in rats takes place in lonely featureless hell-holes. There's a lot of research to show this is a bad idea, because rats raised thusly have pronounced physiological and psychological deficiencies.

Also, it's damned hard to get published in Science or Nature. The real measure is peer-review in a well-established journal.
posted by Humanzee at 5:49 PM on February 12, 2009


I'm sure I could finally quit smoking if I was allowed to live in Disneyland.
posted by zylocomotion at 7:28 PM on February 12, 2009


I am worried that the fact I want to favourite this again speaks badly of me.
posted by motty at 8:40 PM on February 12, 2009


Interesting study, it's always good to see rat experiments that go for ecologic validity.

However I see too problems with the study.

First, I think he is overstretching when he is saying that the rats avoided the morphine because being high interfered with their social interactions. It seems more likely that the highly stimulating environment combined with the bitter taste of the morphine, the reward effect of the drug was not enough to motivate the rats to become addicted.

Second, when he took the rats that had been addicted in cages and put them in the new environment, it is not surprising that they stopped taking the morphine. The environment that a drug is taken in becomes highly reienforced itself, so much so that heroin addicts will often overdose when they take herion outside of their accustomed environments.
posted by afu at 8:45 PM on February 12, 2009


After reading this, I find myself curious if the same pattern of use would hold with a more intense delivery method for the opiate. Perhaps puffs of vaporized heroin to their faces. Or an implanted device that would give them IV hits if they stood over a magnet.

I suspect more would use if the high were more intense. Delivery method matters.

Since Prohibition tends to result in more concentrated forms of drugs becoming more prevalent (see the switch from beer to booze during alcohol prohibition), this would be a damning indictment of our current policy. As if we didn't have enough of those already :p

It also seems to me that amount that caged rats self-administer is less interesting than the degree to which they would choose the drug over other things that rats should want, like contact with other rats, good food and better living conditions in general. Or how much they would self-administer, even if they got a nasty electric shock at the same time.

If the rats don't continue to use in the face of positive and negative reinforcements, then you haven't really modeled addiction. This seems like an obvious follow-on experiment to me, and I am appalled that funding was canceled.

I'd also be real interested in how rat drug use/addiction interacts with the effects of early isolation, as mentioned here (subscriber link, sorry).
posted by Thalience at 10:55 PM on February 12, 2009


The delightful thing here is how it unmasks a contradiction: it demonstrates how a convention of behavioral psychology - the conditioning chamber, or "Skinner box" - designed to free an experiment from the intrusion of noisy and confounding variables, is itself a most invasive variable that must be accounted for.
posted by kid ichorous at 2:57 AM on February 13, 2009 [3 favorites]


to free an experiment from the intrusion of noisy and confounding variables
Not just in psychology. It seems to me, this points up the limitations of in-vitro-laboratory-style biological research generally. Creatures and their environments are intimately interconnected in very complex ways. Organisms are embedded in environments; environments are embodied in organisms. It's important to limit the scope of generalizations based on experiments done in wholly artificial settings.
posted by Jode at 7:47 AM on February 13, 2009 [1 favorite]


I remember my time in the rat labs from my animal learning core requirement course for my psych BA. The rats were kept in small cages with solid walls separating them from the other rats. We starved them down to 85% of their normal body weight so they would be motivated by food. I loved that rat so much I went in 30 minutes earlier than my booked time and stayed 30 minutes later. All so i could play with her.

The consequences of that slightly enriched environment? My rat was the slowest learner of them all. I ended up having to come in on the weekends for a month to help her catch up. Turns out the extra stimulation meant she was learning things other than lever pressing. Things like "It is fun to poop in such a way that it ends up in Stephen's pocket for him to find later". That and getting tired out from running up and down my arms and climbing on top of my head.

The end result was that Winnie the Poo'r came home with me when the experiment was over and lived out her days feeding her addiction to uncooked spaghetti and any president's choice chocolate chip cookies could steal without me catching her.

I ended up addicted to pet rats and have had about eight more. I only stopped when my allergies outstripped my affections.

I am not sure if it's better now that most schools have abandoned animal learning courses. I certainly came away with much deeper appreciation of both learning mechanisms and animal behaviour. How else would I have ever gotten to see a rat eating hard spag like the carriage feed mechanism on a manual typewriter?

The downside is that the cinematic use of rats to trigger revulsion is completely undermined.
posted by srboisvert at 6:37 AM on February 14, 2009 [4 favorites]


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