The Rat Park

The Rat Park

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I am still really taken with the idea of social isolation as the cause of many of the problems in the world today, as I discussed in my recent blog post. I want to follow on from this by drawing attention to the real causes of addiction and the Rat Park experiments from the 1970s, as detailed in the work of Johann Hari, in Chasing the Scream.

The War on Drugs that obsessed police forces and governments over the last century has got it all wrong. Its whole premise is based on the fact that drugs are evil, and cause addiction. Remove drugs, they theorise, and you remove the problem. Punish the drug-user harshly, and they will learn their lesson.

But this is not the case at all. Drugs do not cause addiction. As Hari points out – what about all the hospital patients who are given large amounts of morphine as a painkiller, over long periods of time? Do they go out on the streets afterwards, feeling the need to score their next fix? No. They return to their loved ones, back in the community and, mostly, live their lives as they did before.

A different theory was proved when Canadian psychologist Bruce Alexander published his Rat Park research. This advanced the knowledge that rats isolated in cages without any stimulus took to drinking more and more morphine (heroin)-infused water – apparently addicted to it, until they killed themselves. But Alexander wondered if it wasn’t the drugs themselves that caused this, but the environment? What would happen if a number of rats were placed in a rich, stimulating environment, with plenty of space, toys, food and companionship – and given a choice of heroin-water, or plain water? He tried this out. The rats went for the plain water. Even rats he had forcibly fed heroin to for 57 days, when introduced into their new, spacious, friendly environment, ignored the heroin water, and drank plain water, for preference.

It was not the drugs that caused the addiction, Alexander claimed – it was the miserable condition of social isolation that caused the rats to self-medicate. They took away the pain of loneliness and disconnection with drugs. So drugs are not to blame for addiction. Rather, the blame lay in the cages they were trapped in.

Connection is key. And Johann Hari explains that this has been proved in Portugal, where, at one stage, 1% of the population were heroin addicts, and despite police crackdowns, the problem was getting worse. So they tried a completely different approach in 2000. They decriminalised all drugs, and used all the budgets they had spent on arresting and jailing drug addicts on reconnecting them – to their own feelings, to cope with their past traumas – and to connecting with society. They provided secure housing and subsidised jobs to help give their lives meaning. One group of addicts were given a loan to set up a removals company. They were a group, bonded to each other and to the community, and they felt responsible for each other’s care.

And it worked. The British Journal of Criminology revealed that addiction has decreased, and injecting drug use is down by 50%. Even top drugs officer, Joao Figueira, initially the most vociferous campaigner against the decriminalisation, is happy to admit that he was wrong and hopes the world will follow Portugal’s example. These arguments, facts and statistics are further detailed in Hari’s excellent book.

Our busy, hectic lives and materialistic world mean that so many people feel deprived and disconnected from loving relationships and a caring society. Not even Facebook can make up for a sense of real community.

So many people, through poverty and unemployment, feel purposeless, lost and alone. So, too, do many successful, wealthy people feel isolated and lonely. They, too, can become addicted to drugs, drink, food, gambling, TV, internet, exercise, porn – to dull the pain of disconnection.

And that’s why the War on Drugs does not work. Either on a social level, by imprisoning drug-users in isolation cells; or on a personal level, by telling your loved one that if they don’t shape up, you will never have anything to do with them again. These punishments only exacerbate the problem. The problem isn’t addiction. Addiction is only a symptom. More isolation worsens addiction – it doesn’t cure it. The real cause, and the real problem, is isolation.

And it’s not only addiction that is a dangerous symptom of disconnection. Isolation and disconnection cause human misery, depression, illness, fear of others and the unknown, and even war.

I want to think about what the future holds, when we have this knowledge: how we have the power to do things differently. The way we design society and education and all our structures and systems should be around love and connection. Re-connection is the key.

Our paths needs to move from ever increasing isolation to ever deepening connection. If we are to survive, let alone thrive, we need only to connect more deeply.

The project that I co-founded to make Guernsey the best place to live on earth by 2020 focuses on turning the  global tide of disconnection and creating an environment where we can all learn to connect again. Ending the senseless war on drugs in Guernsey is one project that is a small part of that mission.

But in truth, it goes much deeper than that. To succeed, we need to ask ourselves the reasons why we choose to drink a bottle of wine on our own, when we could be with friends? Why do we watch hours of TV when we could be living an adventure in the real world?  Why do we fear deeply connecting with those around us?

Only when we truly find the answers to those questions can we really start to break free from the cage.

With love.

If you are interested in learning more about this, please read Johann Hari’s Chasing The Scream

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  1. phtrivier says


    Glad to see something much more “practical” than in recent articles. “Way to go”, if the litterature and statistics are right.

    One question : what is your opinion on the “merchandization” of drugs ?

    The train of though is that once you have decriminalized the consumption of drugs, it’s hard to avoid some form of legalization of *selling* them – in which case you can end up with a whole *industry* actively benefiting from having *more* people feeling miserable (exhibit A : tabacco.)

    The causality is highly debatable, of course. Do you have any views on it ?


    • I have no issue with selling per se. I have an issue with some of the organisations that are behind selling. The tobacco industry and the pharmaceutical industry are both current examples where poor values have taken hold. I would prefer the focus to be on improving organisations rather than punishing people.

  2. Indeed, I too am addicted.

    Addicted to love 🙂

  3. Everyone needs to have a mission, they find companionship and meaning! I’m getting back in my happy cage!

  4. Judy Hayman says

    Just got back from reading story books to my 4 year old twin Great Nieces. What a privilege and a joy. How much the young can teach us

  5. I think social isolation is not the cause of world wide problems – it is the other way round – measurable, structural, economic, class-divided and political problems cause social isolation and its resulting social and personal dysfunction, such as chronic ill-health and poverty. stop focussing on the individual and see how the political and economic power brokers (the structure) usually stuff the individual unless they can reach a lifeboat. you said – “I want to think about what the future holds, when we have this knowledge: how we have the power to do things differently. The way we design society and education and all our structures and systems should be around love and connection. Re-connection is the key”.

    please explain this massive statement which seems just a pretty, hippy ideal. how do you persuade the free-market world, the increasingly internationalist and ruthless business community, the multi-international companies who avoid billions in tax and who are the real rulers of the planet (governments choose only to flap about and kowtow) to join in with your ideal to redesign everything around ‘love and connection’ ? you are in business, no? square the circle please? how will it happen? you never, never say how your dreams will take root, let alone make progress? what is the point of your world wide blog other than self-publicity? (remember that children in africa drown in earth and mud slides while mining with their bare hands the precious metals that china needs to put in all of our mobile phones for apple and the others to sell you – how will you fix that with ‘love and connection’?)

    • Structures are full of individuals Mik. I focus on individual change because I see human beings inside every structure that you mention. If we can change the individuals within a structure then the structure changes over time. Now that may not turn out to be the right path but it is certainly the path that I am pursuing. Whilst my methods and approaches may not resonate with you they are the ones that I have chosen to adopt. I am willing to fail and I am also willing to accept that there are plenty of other wonderful people in this world that will look to solve the problems they see in a way that gets the best out of them.

  6. This is one of my favorites, Marc. <3

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