Where does addiction come from? From a history of viewing addicts as suffering from a lack of morals to the more contemporary view that addiction is a mental disease, our ideas around the source of addiction has become more sophisticated over recent decades. But we’re still far from understanding this complicated condition in all of its nuances. Conventional wisdom today often seems no better equipped to truly help those struggling with addiction demons. It may come as a surprise, then, that we’ve had a critical piece to the puzzle under our noses for over 30 years.
In 1981, a scientist named Bruce Alexander and his team ran a study that could have completely changed the dialogue around addiction, but at the time, it was brushed under the rug. That study is known informally as the Rat Park Experiment.
First, some background: Rat Park came in response to a number of addiction studies in the ‘60s and ‘70s where rats were placed in solitary, cramped cages. The rats were given free rein to choose between water and a solution laced with different drugs like morphine (a close relative of heroin) or cocaine. Inevitably, the rats drank enough of the drug to kill themselves, and the outcome was publicized as evidence of drugs’ all-consuming nature. These studies are still used as key support for zero-tolerance policies around drugs to this day.
The Most Important Addiction Study You’ve Never Heard Of
Bruce Alexander — a psychologist who has researched and taught on the psychology of addiction in British Columbia, Canada, since 1970 — wasn’t satisfied with this answer. Instead, he looked at the isolated condition of the rats and asked himself: who wouldn’t drug themselves to oblivion, trapped in a tiny cage alone and without stimulation?
So he designed a new study where a control group of rats was placed individually in the same solitary conditions but with another group of 20-30 rats in a place he called Rat Park: a huge, well-furnished cage with many friends, nooks and crannies to explore, running wheels, interesting objects, and places to hide. He gave the rats the same choice of water or drugs. Even with unlimited access to abusive substances, the well-socialized, community-living rats overwhelmingly chose water. Alexander’s follow-up studies found that even rats that had been stuck in drugged isolation for as many as 57 days, once transferred to Rat Park, voluntarily went through withdrawal and kicked their habit.
Here’s a great video from Kurzgesagt that sums up the findings of the study:
If we take these results to heart, it would seem that drugs alone don’t cause addiction. Addiction comes from a deeper place: feelings of isolation, alienation, or lack of control. Alexander went on to develop his theory of addiction as coming from this lack of social integration, or what he calls “dislocation” or a “poverty of the spirit.”
Of course, we couldn’t—and shouldn’t—do an experiment like this on humans, but Alexander points to many historical examples of waves of addiction following dislocation in human society. One interesting connection that he made was that addiction epidemics have regularly occurred when indigenous cultures are colonized, subjugated, and displaced in American history. As long-standing cultural ties to the land and to community are lost, the void created gets filled with addiction to whatever substances and habits are available. Alexander argues that we are in the midst of a mass displacement today thanks to widespread economic troubles and a culture shifting more and more away from community-minded living.
What Rat Park Means for Addiction and Prohibition
What are the lessons to be learned from Rat Park? For starters, we should look at why this theory—and the evidence behind it—has been ignored. The story of Rat Park doesn’t fit neatly into the popular conception of what addiction is. It challenges the idea that drugs themselves cause all-consuming addiction once you take them, and if we “just say no,” there is nothing to fear. This is the popular reasoning behind drug prohibition, despite the War on Drugs now publicly being acknowledged as a failure. This more nuanced truth, however, doesn’t make for a very snappy headline.
On a more personal level, if we accept this idea, we can not only learn to treat those who are suffering from addiction more humanely but do a better job exploring forms of treatment that have shown to be effective. If access to drugs is not the sole cause to addiction, then merely taking those drugs away won’t cure it. Therapies that simply help an individual “kick” their drug habit are not enough. If they return to the same life, mindset, and fractured community once the treatment ends—that is, the same cage—the chance of relapse is greater.
How Psychedelic Therapy Can Unlock the Cage
How can we make our lives look more like Rat Park instead of a solitary cage? The answer is that any effective addiction treatment will have to restore this missing piece of social integration one way or another. Psychedelic treatment holds particular promise with its ability to change your outlook, increase openness, and create deep and meaningful connections.
Dedicated psychedelic therapy institutes already seem to take this as a given—they know that those struggling with addiction often feel intense isolation and are in need of our compassion. Successful psychedelic treatment involves group counseling, open dialogue, and expert facilitators. Effective recovery coaches and psychedelic practitioners have witnessed the transformative power of listening with genuine empathy and compassion and build it into their practice with conscious conversation. Practices like these can not only bring us out of isolation — they give us the tools to create social integration in every avenue of our lives.
Unlike Alexander’s rats, our cages may not be physical but rather emotional and social. We feel alienated from our neighbors, our co-workers, even our families. Psychedelic therapy has the potential to restore our connection to humanity and unlock the cages we inadvertently build around ourselves. If you or a loved one suffers from addiction, consider your environment and your social ties. Consider the cage you may be in, and take a lesson from the Rat Park Experiment. Give those who are suffering your empathy and support, and if you are struggling yourself, realize that you deserve the same. The power of a compassionate connection can make all the difference.