I’m Building a Rat Park.

When I studied Psychology in college, freshman year we did the ubiquitous Skinner Box experiment. That’s the one where you put a cute little white rat in a cage/box with a bottle of sugar-water. The rat figures out that if he steps on a tiny little lever that a drop of yummy sugary water comes out. It’s basic operant conditioning where the rats have to display certain behavior to get a reward.

Well, a small group of scientists including experimental scientist Bruce Alexander, were running experiments on rats. But instead of sugar-water, the rats were using the lever to inject themselves with morphine. (Yikes!)

The idea was to run studies on addiction.The result of the morphine experiment was that the rats pressed the lever at an alarming rate .  They consumed huge amounts of heroin, morphine, amphetamine, cocaine and other drugs. They became regular rat junkies.

Most people concluded that these drugs were irresistibly addictive to rats, and therefore to humans.

That makes sense. But Alexander had a different idea.

This is where it got interesting.

He noticed that the experimental rats were housed in small individual cages that had metal sides so they couldn’t see or hear anyone except the people who came to clean their cage every couple of days.

It was rat solitary confinement.

Rats are very social, sexual, industrious creatures. They are much like humans in that way.

Alexander thought that perhaps it’s not the drug that is addictive, but maybe it’s the only way available for the rats to mentally escape their rat prison.

Maybe it’s their life that drives them to drugs.

So the scientists built a rat park. It had all the things rats love: hamster wheels, things to climb on, cans to hide in, wood chips, and of course, rats of the same and opposite sex. Friends.

The results were amazing. The social “free” rats with the rat park environment were still allowed free access to the morphine, but consumed almost none. The caged rats on the other hand, some days consumed as much as 25 times the amount of morphine as the social rats.

The new findings resonate with me. When I feel trapped… always in a prison of my own making… I turn to addictive tendencies to avoid the trapped feelings. My drugs of choice are food, TV and the Internet.

When I am doing things I find engaging in a place I feel free, I rarely overeat or turn on the tube.

So, I am out to build a rat park. Not the kind for rats, but the perfect park for me, with all the things that I love and make me lose track of time.

It will be a blast to figure out what goes into it.

What would you put in your perfect park?



Footnote: My freshman year Psychology lab partner stole our rat from the lab so it wouldn’t be disposed of. This cute little pink-eyed, white rat grew into an enormous, foot-long ugly rat. One day it bit her on the finger while she was on her porch and she reactively threw it over the balcony, where he scurried into the woods. While that sounds sad, I’m thinking that in actuality she threw him into a giant rat park.

Comments are closed.