This past week I learned of one of the most important medicine/psychology/sociology related experiments I’ve ever encountered. The experiment has a name; “Rat Park”. If you’re even remotely interested in what makes us do what we do you’re going to love learning about Rat Park. First let me say that one reason rats are so often used in these types of experiments is that it has been found the behaviors the rats exhibit are able to be pretty accurately generalized over to human behaviors. Discounting experiments such as these because they’re done using “just rats” is a pretty weak argument.
Rat Park is the product of Prof. Bruce Alexander and a team of Simon Fraser University researchers. Rat Park is all about addictive behavior. From what I’ve learned it was developed something as a reaction to preceding experiments with rats the outcomes of which demonstrated that given the opportunity rats will consume opiates until they die from maybe overdose or maybe because they neglect doing some things that are necessary to stay alive, like eat.
Professor Alexander hypothesized that the reason the rats in the preceding experiments were so willing to consume opiates is because they were stressed. For one thing they were in individual, restrictive cages and deprived of what for them would be normal socialization.
What is shown in the Rat Park experiment was that given a healthful, supportive, social environment rats would reject opiates apparently in favor of simply enjoying their day to day lives. Imagine that! If rats (people) feel good about their (our) lives we don’t want to engage in behaviors which will take away from our ability to engage in and enjoy life. How many other aberrant behaviors do you suppose living things, such as people, might reject if the environment were less stressful, more conducive to healthy lives? Think about it. You may quite possibly find yourself asking the same question I found myself asking; why do we need experiments with rats to tell us this?
Also we need to realize that isolation is not the only condition that can cause such stress. There are others; war and poverty being prime examples.
This is a short post, really just an introduction to the Rat Park experiment. I hope you’ll look into it further! An excellent place to learn about it is from a cartoon created by Stuart McMillen. It can be found at: