What’s Your Rat Park?

The team that helps me plan and host our annual Emotion-Focused Mindfulness Therapy Summer Retreat at the beautiful Ecology Retreat Centre north of Toronto (sadly cancelled this year because of the pandemic) has an inside joke about how the process of getting together to meditate, share, and organize and facilitate these retreats is our Rat Park. This is a reference to ground-breaking research conducted by Canadian psychologist Dr. Bruce Alexander. A new documentary on this research and its implications, Rat Park, was released last year.

Alexander’s experiments, in the 1970s, have come to be called the “Rat Park.” Researchers had already proved that when rats were placed in a cage, all alone, with no other community of rats, and offered two water bottles—one filled with water and the other with heroin or cocaine—the rats would repetitively drink from the drug-laced bottles until they all overdosed and died. Like pigeons pressing a pleasure lever, they were relentless, until their bodies and brains were overcome, and they died.

But Alexander wondered: is this about the drug or might it be related to the setting they were in? To test his hypothesis, he put rats in “rat parks,” where they were among others and free to roam and play, to socialize and to have sex. And they were given the same access to the same two types of drug laced bottles. When inhabiting a “rat park,” they remarkably preferred the plain water. Even when they did imbibe from the drug-filled bottle, they did so intermittently, not obsessively, and never overdosed. A social community beat the power of drugs.

LI Sederer, 2019, https://www.psychiatrictimes.com/substance-use-disorder/what-does-rat-park-teach-us-about-addiction

It has become clear that vulnerabilities to addictions are based on adverse childhood events and trauma that interfere with our ability to connect with others and to live deeply meaningful lives. This documentary highlights how addressing addictions requires addressing the social and economic conditions that drive structural oppression and poverty, empowering people to live life based on their deepest values and authentic needs, co-creating their own Rat Parks. What’s your Rat Park?