Classic Rat Park experiments

There’s a classic experiment repeated time and time again where the scientist will put a rat in a cage with two options for drinking water: one clean and pure, one laced with heroin or other opiates. Time and time again, without fail, the rat will choose the drugged water and drink it until it dies.

The interpretation of this result was simple: the opiates were so powerful that a person would sacrifice everything, even at the risk of their own life, to continue to obtain them, and eventually, it will cost them their own life. The neuroscience of addiction set off to figure out what in the brain would support such behavior.

In the late 1970’s, psychologist Dr. Bruce K. Alexander of Simon Fraser University in British Columbia interpreted the classic study differently. The problem as he saw it wasn’t the drugs; it was the cage. There was only one rat. The rat had nothing to do. It was lonely and depressed. Maybe that is why it preferred the drugged water.

So he and his colleagues set up a different experiment: provide the same two drinking water options, but populate the cage with a whole community of rats, and give them nesting material, toys, and other diversions to give them an otherwise happy life. He called it “Rat Park.”

In Dr. Alexander’s experiments, published in the journal Psychopharmacology, the rats in Rat Park didn’t prefer the opiate-laced water. None of them overdosed or died. And most remarkably, when he introduced rats into Rat Park who were already addicted to opiates, they preferred community connection; they stopped drinking the drugged water, and after exhibiting withdrawal symptoms, they enjoyed living in Rat Park just like the others.