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September 26, 2018
Rat Park: The story of an experiment
What we know today as the art of comics was once the art of narration through images started in the caves of the pre historic days
September 26, 2018

It is said that drugs are the plague of our century. Indeed, all over the world, people of all ages, are addicted to various substances. Their use leads to abuse, abuse leads to addiction and addiction takes you by the hand, and leads you to your grave. But why should you choose this dark path in the first place? In addition, if you presume that social conditions, ghettoization, unemployment, uncertainty and the society we live in – a society which is reflected in the faces of its lost children – led you there, then how do you return from this dark place?

On behalf of science and psychology in the early 20th century, there have been many answers and experiments. Among the more common methods used for dealing with addiction were beatings, isolation and medication (psychiatric drugs). Fortunately for the people, these “techniques” quickly proved ineffective. Unfortunately for rodents, the solution was to use them to conduct experiments. So, in addition to the shampoo we tested on them, the colognes we sprayed on them, the scientists figured why not give the mice some drugs, too?

The experiment was simple and didn’t require a big laboratory or sessions with psychologists. One, single, solitary rat was placed in a cage with two containers of water, one of them containing heroin. The rat drank from both containers, but the sweetness of the contaminated container kept him returning for another dose. Everyday, the dosage was increased and the visits became more frequent. At the end of the experiment, the rats chose to ‘live fast & die young’ as most of them had become addicted, while deaths due to overdose reached quite high levels.

The thing about this experiment though, is that it supplied no answer to the basic question, why did every rat choose to drink from that particular container of water? Here’s where the Canadian psychologist and professor, Bruce Alexander, comes in to add his two cents and change our way of thinking. He asked a simple question …. why should the rat be alone in the cage, and why give it heroin as its only escape? The question was targeted, as the psychologist had already thought of the solution that would forever transform how to help people dealing with addiction.

He proposed the “rat park”. He used a bigger cage (or “a village” as he sometimes called it) and placed many rats in it, along with toys and things to keep them occupied. Slides, colorful balls and tunnels, were a few of the activities chosen by Dr.Alexander for the inhabitants of the village. Also, he chose to include both male and female rats, so love was in the air at the rat park. And finally, he placed the afore-mentioned containers in the corners of the cage and impatiently waited to see how the community would develop.

The result was fascinating! The rats, these creatures that we’ve been tormenting for over a century in order find solutions for ourselves, had been cured. What was the cure? Medication? The successful treatment was this: Social inclusion and recreation.

In particular, the psychologist’s noted the following results:

  • in only a few cases did the rats choose the heroin water, and usually by choice and not because the mouse was addicted (for us, something similar to “I only drink on the weekend”)
  • none of the rats “used” on a continual basis
  • none of the rats died due to heroin overdose, or frequent use
  • when they found their “other half” or when playing in a group of friends, the rats chose to drink from the clean water only

Despite the joyful news, several of Dr. Alexander’s colleagues viewed the rat park experiment with suspicion. Many were not convinced by the experiment and disagreed with the comparison of rodents to humans. However, the historical circumstances would justify the professor once and for all.

In the era of the Vietnam War, about 20% of American soldiers had been systematically using heroin. Naturally many of them had never before tried heroin and had no history of self-destructive tendencies. They were simply looking for ways to escape the reality of war around them, and tripped down the slippery slope…

When the war ended and the addicted soldiers returned home, Dr. Alexander began to observe and study their lives. His conclusions were as fascinating as the rat park results. Over 80% of users suddenly stopped using without pharmaceutical and psychological help. What was the cure? Once again, social inclusion and recreation.They simply left behind all the bullets, bombs and bloodshed, and reunited with their friends, families and partners. Yet again, it was concluded that loneliness is the worst enemy of man.

Drugs and the 21st Century

Today Bruce Alexander’s work is more timely than ever. Statistics show that the use of hard drugs has risen in societies that are dealing with harsh economic conditions, in the ghettos of big Western cities, crammed with marginalized people.

Take, for example, Greece – how it was here decades ago compared to the Greece of the financial crisis. The existence of new kinds of narcotics says it all. Take a look at the number of deaths due to drugs in the Balkans compared to that of Scandinavian countries. Finally, think about the vicious cycle that devours the recovered addict. The “ex-junkie” – a characterization heard in almost every neighborhood, a term that only immediately segregates the rehabilitated person from the community, making it harder for them to make new friends and find new social groups/activities; in turn leading them back to the sidelines. We are responsible for returning them to isolation, we are indirectly responsible for that inevitable first dose…

Therefore, there’s only one cure. Put substances aside, go out there and meet people and see new places. Drop that syringe, throw away that pipe and go ahead and call your childhood friend, the one you haven’t seen in years. Take that first step, and go find the person you want to be with. Take that long trip that you’ve been dreaming of since you were little and leave behind those other day-trippin’ habits. Throw it all away, and go out for a walk. Find new friends to hang out with, people who will accept you for you. And each time you feel yourself slipping… think: If you have a partner to love would you watch porn? If you know how to score a goal for real, would you be cooped up inside with a video game? If there’s life flowing through your veins, would you fill those veins with poison?

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Mohamed Benghuzzi

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