Is Roland Rat a drug addict?




Bruce Alexander looked at the drug-addicted rat. From its cramped cage it squinted back, a catheter stuck into its raw back enabling it to self-administer heroin.

All around there was the stench of excrement, of blood, of fear. This smell emanated from the surrounding mass of cages, each with its own imprisoned, frightened animal. Each rat set up for drug use, striving for pleasure but destined for death.

Alexander looked again at the poor creature and thought of the many rat studies showing that these animals would do anything, once addicted, to get another shot of heroin, cocaine, or whatever drug to which they had been forcibly addicted.

They would, for example, run across an electrified plate, collapsing in agony on the other side, but then joyously, greedily, dosing themselves in their drug of 'choice'.

Clearly addiction was a powerful force – a deadly force. Humans, and for that matter other creatures, would, for chemical reasons, be driven to use again and again. Powerful, and inevitable.



Yet Alexander felt that in spite of this seemingly overwhelming evidence, there was something mistaken about all this. He intended to prove the theory of addiction wrong.

He stared at the rat and wondered. “If you’re meant to represent me, to behave like me, to feel like me, then how would I feel in your position?” The rat was obviously in pain because of the wound enabling the drug supply to be attached to its back. It was alone – in the sense that someone's alone when in solitary confinement. Yet it could smell the stench of pain, fear, and death.

Further, the unfortunate creature could hardly turn around in this tiny cell; yet rats are social creatures, going out of their way in nature to meet others; they live in family groups and bring up their young pretty much as we do. Alexander knew that to live in such a stinking cage like this would cause him massive emotional and physical pain – he felt sure that in similar circumstances that he would want to take to drugs. 

Perhaps there was more to addiction than just chemicals... And so he built Rat Park.


Rat Heaven

The ‘Park’ was a massively spacious, heavenly colony for white rats. It gave the animals a cosy, warm environment, provided the comfort of cedar shavings for bedding, gave them a place for birthing, space to interact socially, and provided the opportunity for them to live a life similar to how they would in the wild. This was rat heaven.

How would they behave now if given the opportunity to take drugs? Could Alexander challenge the whole concept of addiction?


The studies

One thing that rats love is sweetness. For nearly a hundred years we have done experiments that used this fact, and Alexander did the same. He gave the inhabitants of Rat Park sweetened water, but, unknown to them, it also contained morphine; at least, unknown until they drank it, since a while later they would keel over, warm and cosy in a chemical daze.

Over time, Alexander increased the sugar levels so that this drink became a veritable delight – the sweetest drink with the opioid lift. Surely irresistible to any rat?

Alexander had created a group of addicts – just as was done in a thousand other studies; but this time with rats in a very different situation to the rat hell that they usually inhabited. The cocktail was given not just to the inhabitants of rat heaven, though – it was also forced onto the unfortunate rats still living in the hellish cages of the lab.

Having got both groups hooked by giving them only this drugged, sweetened water, Alexander now offered both groups an alternative – they could have just plain old tap water if they wished.

So now the choice was between two drinking bowls – one containing sweet, drugged water, and the other boring tap water; but surely every one of these addicts irrespective of the group he/she was in would want the drug, wouldn’t they?


The old theory collapses

The results were startling.

The inmates of the cages couldn’t get enough of the tasty morphine drink - just as we expected, and just as a thousand studies had shown before.Yet even when Alexander made it sweeter still, those residing in rat heaven couldn’t be bothered. Occasionally they would have a slurp, but the privileged dwellers in Rat Park consistently chose good old tap water.

In fact, when the two groups were compared, the caged rats drank up to sixteen times as often from the drugged water.

More extraordinary than that, when Alexander added to the sweetened water a drug called Naxolone, a substance that blocks the effect of morphine but still leaves the water tasting sweet, the rat heaven residents did start to drink it. Amazingly, they wanted the sweet taste but they didn’t want to get stoned.

Now let’s be clear about this, Rat Park residents given heroin or morphine in this way then deprived of it did show signs of withdrawal – but nowhere near as intensely as those caged up in Rat Hell. And even then, most didn’t try to resolve it by using the drug.

More evidence

Further studies showed this also applied to other drugs that rats would supposedly die for – including heroin. It was clear - provided that they were in a happy environment, rats were taking action to avoid drugs.

So what can we conclude?

The conclusion from this amazing study has to be that if they have the opportunity of living a happy, normal life, rats will usually choose not to have drugs.

This is completely at odds with studies that had been done before, but, of course, they hadn't been done with happy rats before.

So what happened?

Did these studies change dramatically our view of addiction?

Hardly. But we can explain this easily – there is a massive industry out there that depends on presenting addiction as primarily a chemical problem – something requiring medical intervention and a whole battalion of people fighting to save victims from the inevitable tyranny of drugs.

Predictably, therefore, two of the most important journals refused to accept the initial studies – even though smaller journals had validated the research and had published it.

But why?

These studies suggests that coming off something claimed to be addictive does cause a problem – our bodies will feel uncomfortable and take a time to recover; but it won't be that burdensome if we live in an ideal world like Rat Park.

So what’s going on here? Why did the rats in cages, living in fear and pain, and scenting death, want to use drugs?

The simple answer is that we all want to feel good, and we all want to avoid pain. Combine this with the fact that when we feel bad we tend to seek out certain substances – such as food or drugs - and you can see why we can get into difficulties.

It seemed that rats that were emotionally well and had a 'natural' and pleasant environment preferred not to get off their heads. Those who had problems - emotionally and environmentally - did want to alter their state of mind.


Rat Park showed that we had failed in the past to take into account state of mind - and, sadly, many had an interest in 'over-looking' this vital factor. Living things just want to feel good, and then we don't want, need, or seek out substances that interfere with our happiness.

Just ask any of the residents in Rat Park.



The two major science journals, Science and Nature, rejected Alexander, Coambs, and Hadaway's first paper, which appeared instead in Psychopharmacology, a respectable but much smaller journal in 1978.

The paper's publication initially attracted no response. Within a few years, Simon Fraser University withdrew Rat Park's funding.


Other popular articles:

Why you don't want money next year

Do you have to be talented to do well?

The blog page

Developing self-compassion





Alan Davidson:

UK:  01202 423111   (Outside UK: 44 1202 423111)