Many of us remember the addiction story from our under-graduate Psychology 101 class. The story goes that drugs like heroin and cocaine are so addictive that when rats are exposed to them, they will continue to take the drug over food or water until they literally starve to death. So powerful are the addictive properties of these drugs that they fundamentally rewire the reward systems of the poor rats brain so that staying alive seems less important than getting another fix.


This theory has informed decades of drug and alcohol clinicians, and leads many of us to focus our efforts on somehow helping people to withdraw from drugs long enough for the powerful effects of addiction to abate. However, a little known piece of research by Alexander and Fraser challenges some of this accepted wisdom. Their theory was that drugs are used to numb pain, and that being a lab rat in cramped conditions who gets prodded by scientists every now and then is a pretty painful existence. Would the rats be as addicted to drugs if they were treated better ?


So to answer this question, they built “Rat Park”. Rat Park is a 9 metre square complex (around 200 times larger than a usual lab rat enclosure), full of wheels and ramps and games, and other rats to play with. There were around 18 rats living in Rat Park, and they were allowed to play and breed and raise families and do all of the things that rats generally enjoy doing. Rates were fed morphine for 57 days in a row and then released into rat park. Many of them experienced some withdrawal symptoms in their first days, and then integrated into the rest of the community.


The rats in Rat Park had access to water, as well as water laced with morphine. However, despite all of them having had chronic exposure to opiates and having become physiologically addicted, by and large they ignored the morphine. The rats preferred to get on with life. In fact the rats who were kept in normal rat cages consumed 19 times more morphine than the Rat Park rats. Even when sweetener was added to the morphine water, the rats tended to try it once or twice, and then would refuse it. This suggests that for rats at least, having a pleasant environment is a great protector against addiction.


We have no idea the extent to which rats experience the same emotions as humans. Are they capable of feeling sad, or lonely or depressed? However, it is safe to say that the cage rats were generally experiencing less pleasant emotions than the Rat Park rats. It is also safe to say, that the increase in drug use was largely due to their negative experience as a caged rat. Essentially, they used drugs to numb pain.


Humans have a wide range of emotions, but we also have a wider range of pain numbing strategies, including; drugs, alcohol, sex, over-eating, gambling, spending. The results of the Rat Park experiment ask the question, do we use these numbing behaviours in the same way as rats? Next time we are considering eating a block of chocolate, pumping our pay into the pokies, or drinking till we pass out, maybe we need to ask whether or not our life is offering us a full range of experiences, or are we living just like a rat in a cage. This is equally important for clinicians to ask when working with people who have addictions. The temptation is to focus on the addictive behaviour and encourage the person to stop. However, a lot of the more successful approaches to addictive behaviours focus on what the person could be doing instead in order to lead a more fulfilling life.