For a long time it was assumed that drugs cause addiction. You take drugs, you get addicted.
An experiment with rats proved this to be true over and over again. A single rat was placed in a cage with two water bottles. One contained water and the other contained water laced with cocaine or heroin.
Every time the experiment was done, the rat became obsessed with the drugged water and drank it until it died.
So the thinking was that exposure to drugs leads to addiction.
In the 1970s, a Canadian psychologist named Bruce K. Alexander changed the experiment. Rather than putting the rat in a cage by itself, he created what he called Rat Park, a wonderful place that included plenty of room to move around, lots of other rats, colored balls to play with, tunnels to crawl through, plenty of food. It was described as “rat heaven.”
Alexander also put the two water bottles—one with plain water and one with drugged water—in Rat Park.
As the video below illustrates, the result of his study transformed how we think about addiction and shed new light on the importance of community and social connection.
In Rat Park, rats hardly ever used the drugged water, none of them obsessed over it, and none of the rats ever overdosed.
The parallels between Rat Park and the human experience are striking.
We humans have an innate need to bond and connect.
When we’re happy and healthy, we bond with the people around us. When we’re not happy and healthy, for whatever reasons there may be, we bond with something that gives us a sense of relief, such as drugs, our gadgets, porn, video games or shopping.
The way out of addiction, and feeling disconnected, is a challenge that we need to solve as individuals and as a society as a whole.
“[S]omething has gone wrong with us as a group,” the video explains. “We have to build a society that looks a lot more like Rat Park and a lot less like those isolated cages. We are going to have to change the unnatural way we live and rediscover each other.”
Then comes the mic drop moment in the story—the unforgettable lesson the rats of Rat Park taught us:
“The opposite of addiction is not sobriety. The opposite of addiction is connection.”
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