What causes drug addiction? Easy! Addictive substances. You take heroin and you’ll become an addict for sure, right? This is the narrative that our society teaches us. It is the reason why we treat addicts like criminals, blaming them for the choice they have made when they could have just as easily chosen a normal, conventional life, like everyone else.
But what if it’s not that easy or simple?
The Rat Park Experiment
In 1970, Canadian psychologist Bruce K. Alexander and his colleagues at Simon Fraser University in British Columbia conducted a study that directly challenged the common notion that drugs are themselves the cause of addiction.
They put lab rats in small separate cages, each with two water dispensers; one of them filled with pure water and the other with water mixed with heroin or cocaine. The rats would end up compulsively pressing the drug dispensing lever again and again, even to the point of choosing it over food. Soon enough, they would starve themselves to death. Sounds like the typical drug addict behavior, right?
But the study doesn’t end there. Alexandre and his team built what one could call a “Rat Paradise.” Instead of isolating rats in small separate cages, they let them interact with each other in an environment 200 times more spacious than a standard laboratory cage — with plenty of food, toys, wheels, and space to mate. Their behavior and choices changed dramatically.
The rats in the rat park resisted the drugged water and chose pure water instead. Even already-addicted rats weaned themselves off their addiction after they were transferred from cages to the rat park.
This begs the question: were rats really hopeless addicts, or simply unhappy? Were they reacting to the drug itself, or to their confined, isolated, and depressing environment?
“It is no measure of health to be well adjusted to a profoundly sick society.”
– Jiddu Krishnamurti
Modern Society: The Antithesis To Human Happiness
The same question should be asked about human beings. Perhaps it is not the drug itself that some find addictive, but the fact that it is a temporary escape to this sick and depressing society we have built for ourselves. Authorities continue to glorify the War on Drugs with strict laws, fear-based education, and severe punishment for drug use… while completely disregarding how our society’s very structure is designed for unhappiness.
Think about it: the standard human life consists of spending the best years of our lives bored out of our minds in school only to prepare us for a job we will most likely hate, and then retire at 60 when we’re too old and tired to do the things we would have actually wanted to do.
“Normal is getting dressed in clothes that you buy for work and driving through traffic in a car that you are still paying for – in order to get to the job you need to pay for the clothes and the car, and the house you leave vacant all day so you can afford to live in it.”
– Ellen Goodman
I don’t know about you, but this to me sounds a lot like a little cage in which there is no time or space to enjoy ourselves, act on our deepest calling, and feel a sense of community among fellow human beings — which I believe is key to human happiness and fulfillment. This is not to say that choosing the drug over reality is the right choice, but it is, in essence, just as reasonable as the poor rats’ decision to go for “feel good” chemicals rather than stay sober inside of a prison. Both the drug-addicted rat and human are hurting… and pain needs compassion and understanding, not punishment.
It is interesting to note that Bruce Alexander’s discovery was ignored and suppressed for many years. Perhaps because taking a good look at our own human environment — instead of policing our reactions to it — may spark the revolution that those in power fear. The difference between our human society and a rat cage is that we have a choice.
We can continue living by the rules even though they make us miserable. We can continue escaping our feelings with substances to better cope with the way things are. Or… we can turn to each other and realize that we are the ones powering this entire society. How about we stop that and instead power up the more beautiful world our hearts know is possible?
“If you feel like you don’t fit in, in this world, it is because you are here to help create a new one.”
– Jocelyn Daher