Bruce Alexander's Rat Park: a ratty paradise that challenges our assumptions about addiction


Former UK drugs czar David Nutt. [Alexander and Nutt] are scientists who make the case that the our drug policy is more the product of political grandstanding than scientific evidence.

Not just “former UK drugs czar”, but sacked UK drugs czar, on account of caring about evidence.


Hmmm. I certainly don’t disagree with this, in the abstract, at least to the degree that it is summarized here. The negatives of addiction are inarguably compounded and reinforced by our outsized social stigmas and criminal sanctions.

However, I take issue with the idea that recovering from addiction doesn’t require significant work (i.e. mental rewiring) for most people. I haven’t had a drink or smoked crack in quite some time, but it took years of effort to re-learn how to deal with life’s disappointments (and triumphs, for that matter). And that’s just the emotional/psychological side of things; the mere whiff of either of those substances has an immediate (heart pumping, skin crawling, adrenaline rushing) effect on me. To be clear, I’m way out of the proverbial woods, here. I have no secret desire to relapse. But the body’s desire for those chemicals seems to live on for a long time. Shit, I have to be careful about drinking things like kombucha; even at .005% alcohol or whatever, my nervous system goes on high alert. WhatisthisIknowthisgivememorenow.

So, while I encourage the sort of changes in social attitudes that this scientist’s work seems to support – less focus on draconian punishment/shaming – it does strike me as being a bit “cute” and academic, at least from my own experience.

Of course, while describing my own experience, I don’t wish to claim to be some sort of spokesperson for addicts everywhere. Certainly not rat addicts.


I’ve known a few junkies, and I think these guys have a point. Guys with no education get released from prison with no prospects. In some cases they don’t even have proper ID. Most of them owe somebody more than they can pay - a bank, or a court or child support. And our society simply asks these guys to straighten up and fly right.

There have been a few successful programs to help folks like this get back to working and paying rent and doing the things they need to do. These programs are always reviled as “soft on crime” and “enabling.” They are always first on the chopping block when it’s austerity time. And in this century, it’s always austerity time.


I wasn’t addicted to heroin or crack, but to cigarettes and I, too, found that the key to remaining free of the addiction was learning emotional skills that I had not been taught or managed to learn on my own. Like most people, I found quitting to be no big deal. With cigarettes, the nicotine leaves the body in three days. The physical symptoms of withdrawal are no worse than a very mild cold. But, like Mark Twain said, “It’s easy to quit. I’ve done it a thousand times.” It was always an emotional need that drove me back to smoking. Breaking that cycle took a couple of years of rethinking, healing, and changing my social situation.

Perhaps for mice, a change of scenery is enough to relieve the emotional pull toward addiction. Maybe for those in poverty, a nicer setting alone would do a lot. But I suspect that for humans the story is more complex, and this research adds a piece to the puzzle.

I also feel that addiction in and of itself is not really the issue, but the inability to cope with life’s hardships in a useful, functional way is the real problem of drug addiction. When life gives you lemons and you have to shoot up to deal with it, that’s really a problem for society, that we have all these people who have limited resilience, or believe they do.

I, too, believe that our drug policy is total folly; I would like to see addicts of all stripes treated with more compassion and understanding. I think it says something about those of us who are living without addiction that we treat those who need it as rejects and criminals. Something not very nice.


Moving addicted rats to a stimulating environment is two variable changes, not one. It is more stimulating and it is a change of environment. A similar experiment was run in the 1960’s and 70’s with similar results but a different conclusion: the Vietnam War.

Many GI’s became addicted to some pretty hard stuff while in Vietnam. Very high addiction rates. There was a worry that they would remain addicts after coming home. But the vast majority kicked their addictions. The conclusion was that habits, even addiction habits, can be more easily changed if people also move locations and leave behind the cues and social connections that coincide with drug use.


Arguably, the important point of the research is about the limitations of rats for modeling a human problem with strong behavioral components. Especially the limitations of rats that aren’t even given behavioral options from a rat’s-eye-view perspective. The ‘well, when locked in a tiny cage with the option of heroin or nothing, rats chose heroin’ proof of addictiveness isn’t terribly compelling if rats with options don’t chose heroin; but ‘rats with options’ may not be a particularly good model for humans, unless rat colonies with drug supplies and other options still produce a sub-population of rat addicts, since we know that human societies do do that.


I wonder how much it helps that (at least since the advent of written culture, probably earlier) war has been treated as a significant behavioral special case. It isn’t just a change of scene, it’s a change of scene were certain normally-transgressive behavior becomes somewhere between valorized and mandatory. Obviously drug use was not encouraged (nor do soldiers always adjust to being civilians again); but that is, culturally, one of the biggest ‘and right here, the rules change’ circumstances we have on hand.


One suspects that if the rich environment was the one where they had become addicted in the first place, the levels of relapse would be higher The things that are distractions in this experiment would tend to be triggers instead. …“ooh the exercise wheel, that is way more fun when I’m high.”


Apparently rats do not have rock stars… Because their scenery changes daily or at least weekly, they have plenty of money (I’m thinking big names here), plus they are famous and people love them, yet they still have terrible drug addictions.

I think that was more or less what I was getting at, actually. Most human addicts, when asked, will describe their initial experiences with substances as being a liberating escape from a “cage”; i.e. the painful experiences and intense pressures of human society. Of course, over time, addiction becomes a cage-within-a-cage. Then, the lack of humane options in working one’s way out of addiction (such as permanent criminal records/stigma) function as another cage.

So yes, if those proverbial/literal cages were relaxed, an addicted human allowed to frolic with the other humans would do better in comparison. I mean, duh. But they would – in many cases – still use a hell of a lot of their preferred substance. The physical withdrawal symptoms for severe alcohol addicts are utter hell (and medically very dangerous); the relaxation of social judgement wouldn’t do much to relieve the tremors, hallucinations, vomiting/shitting, seizures, etc. (I never got far enough into heroin, but my understanding is that quitting it is pretty nasty, too.) The unpleasantness of withdrawal reinforces continued use, which is why most addicts are eventually using just to function. And people would continue to do the embarrassing/annoying things that intense/regular intoxication brings; they’d still forget birthdays, screw up badly at work, react badly to criticism, and so on. In other words, the other humans would still eventually get sick of their bullshit.

And yes, there will always be that subset who get addicted. A nicer cage isn’t going to magically cure the preexisting brain chemistry issues that often mark people for addictive behavior. Peoplerats are still going to have predispositions to chronic depression, or still be wired to be highly driven/overly self-critical. I, for instance, had a wonderful childhood: travel all around the country (and beyond), relatively unstructured (home)schooling, and two loving/supportive parents. Still ended up massively cross-addicted, for some reason. It’s that factor, combined with the complete re-imagining of peoplerat society, that causes me to describe the results of the study as “academic.”

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“So you wanna be a rat superstar
And live large
A big house
5 cars
The rent charged”

Come to think of it, B-Real does kind of sound like a rodent.

Here’s a leap. If the US could ensure people a decent living wage, health care, child care, a fair chance at middle class life, most of our social ills would dissolve like this ratty paradise.


Yeah, the experiment tends to ignore the fact that addiction can begin in significantly nicer cages with more range to roam. Rich people with a ton of resources and opportunities to travel and whatnot can still become and remain addicts.

Yeaahhh, except, probably not really.

“Yeah sure” is a really moving argument against egalitarianism. /s


yeah mice, not the most complex psychology…

This piece reinforces a thing I read recently about schizophrenia – it was a story about a 60’s feminist writer/thinker who was diagnosed with schizophrenia and had numerous breakdowns. In the 80s her work was rediscovered by a group of young feminists who befriended her and became a wonderful support group. She was able to come off her drugs and her schizophrenia basically disappeared, only to reappear years later once that group of younger friends went their separate ways to pursue their own paths. This jibes with the fact that schizophrenia is not found at all in primitive societies – positing the idea that the communal bonds/environment are so strong that the trauma, isolation and loneliness that can trigger schizophrenia are simply non-existent. It seems certain that some people are genetically predisposed to things like addiction or schizophrenia, depression, epilepsy, etc., but that its often environmental triggers that cause these diseases to manifest.

Western society is horribly isolating – technology, the disappearance of community, the breaking of bonds ever since the industrial revolution really took off, have left the human mind at a loss, hence the much higher incidences of all of these mental disorders. Allow human bonds to flourish under non-traumatic, non-coercive systems and, as these studies show, the activities we use to cope or self-medicate become unnecessary and slough off like a dead useless skin. Obviously, this isn’t to say there would be no incidence of mental illness, addiction, etc., in a world with strong communal ties and non-coercive and non-oppressive societal structures, but that these problems would be greatly diminished.

The hopelessness of neoliberal/neo-feudal capitalism and its dehumanization of the poor and middle classes, and disruption of community (where we are all seen as “economic agents”/consumers instead of human beings/citizens is to blame for so much misery… if we were a truly enlightened society, as the TED-talk technology crowd likes to pat itself on the back for being, we would do away with money and be sure to provide a healthy subsistence, housing, strong education and healthcare, with the encouragement and opportunity for creative and spiritual growth for everyone. With modern technology we can certainly produce more than enough of everything we need to make this a reality. All that’s missing is the will amongst those who run our society to make this happen. Instead of enlightenment, we have arrogant, self-entitled, social darwinists forcing artificial scarcity and misery on the many so they can sit on their piles of money and power looking down on the rest. The more things change the more they stay the same. The problem they are encountering with their grand neoliberal dreams is that most of the masses no longer buy the ideology they sold so successfully in the past that the rich or superior. Their desperation is showing with their “takers” and “makers”, “job creators” drab old rhetoric… but their day is almost over. Socialism as cultural and human reality – that models human society on the basis of true equality – is the only answer for humanity. We ignore it at the peril of us all, not just the canaries in the coal mine.

Fantastic! 'Cause, you know, that ain’t my argument.

Read my other posts on this topic.

It’s not an argument against a change in society. It’s an argument that a change in society can only do so much against existing, predetermined brain chemistry and personal life circumstance.

It’s as though obscene wealth ≠ healthy living environment