In this experiment, Professor Bruce K. Alexander studied whether continued drug addiction was entirely due to the effects of drug consumption, or whether outside factors could have an influence on the potential for addiction.
He took two groups of rats and separated them into two separate enclosures. Half were placed in single, standard cages with each rat being completely isolated. The other half were placed in a giant, specially-built open enclosure that had walls painted to look like woodlands, and cedar shavings and dozens of boxes for the rats to nest and play in, essentially providing everything needed to keep the rats happy. Most significantly, the rats inhabiting this enclosure were able to play, fight, and socially engage with one another. This enclosure became known as “Rat Park.”
The scientists began to offer morphine to both sets of rats, mixing the drug into a sugary water concoction the rats’ taste buds could hardly resist. However, the rats that were isolated in the metal cages were far quicker to start drinking the morphine-water, and consumed in much higher volumes. Cage consumption of the morphine-water was nineteen times higher than that of the Rat Park rats. Despite being freely-available, the morphine-water went largely untouched within Rat Park as the rats preferred their social life and engagement to the drug’s effects.
“I used to refer to my drug use as putting the monster in the box. I wanted to be less, so I took more – simple as that.”
– Carrie Fisher,
Most surprising was the results of the second stage of the experiment, when the scientists experimented with rats deliberately made addicted to morphine, observing whether a difference in environment would impact the rats’ drug rehabilitation process. The rats were given only morphine-water for nine days, then given a “free day” where they could choose between morphine-water or regular water.
Of the two groups, the rats that were kept in the isolated cages not only continued drinking the morphine-water, but increased their intake. However, the Rat Park rats drank significantly less of the morphine-water and actively attempted to resist consuming the drug, even when withdrawal symptoms were experienced. Despite both groups being physically dependent, the Rat Park rats deliberately tried to return to a social life undisrupted by the drug, choosing to endure the effects of morphine withdrawal.
From the study, Professor Alexander concluded that continued substance abuse was not simply due to the effects of the drug, but that certain environmental factors could trigger a higher likelihood of addiction. More specifically, the Rat Park rats that were provided with tools that benefited their mental health, i.e., freedom to run around, toys to encourage play, and active socialization with others, were not only less likely to consume the morphine-water, but when forcibly made addicted, were more likely to resist the drug and pursue sobriety.
– Courtesy of lifelineconnections.org