Are we all seeking a Rat Park Utopia?
So, I watched an amazing speaker recently and I can’t wait to tell you all about the ensuing findings that came about! This is going to blow your mind and change your entire belief system when looking at the greater scheme of society, as a whole.
If you know me personally or read my blogs, you will probably be aware of my passionate zest for culture and the strength in building relationships. I read up on it, I research why it is so essential; I preach it and practice it; I live and breathe it in work and leisure. So what happens when something, someone, is toxic to the culture? A plague on the environment and its vision of idealistic being? Often we see addicts as this very vermin on society; obesity, drug-related behaviours, gamblers alcoholics and more. Maybe we need to simply change the way we view this toxicity. Check this out.
An age ago, a psychologist tested the very means of addiction and the hardships one must endure when they own an ‘addictive personality’. To test such a thing, the advanced doctor put a rat in a testing environment (usually a glass tank, incubator styled set-up), and placed within a water source from which the rat to hydrate. One source, at one end of the tank, actual water, the other, down the opposite end. What the rat did not know was that this second water source was laced with heroin and soon the rat became so infatuated by this water source, and could not distract itself from the cravings, the psych declared addiction had eventuated. He concluded, that indeed a chemical occurrence in the brain creates a ‘hook’ and the stimulus simply cannot help itself. It eventually over-doses and dies. This happened time and time again. We can relate this to many aspects of our society. It seems fool-proof really. But there were cynics.
Lowly species such as rats cannot possibly control themselves. If only there were ways to test completely sane humans, and then we may see the results for certain.
Soon after, a natural rat experiment did take place with the sought out ‘drug and the human’ scenario the cynics craved. It was known as the Vietnam War.
In one Time magazine report, it was cited that heroin use during the war was common as ‘chewing gum’ and some 20% of soldiers had become addicted to it whilst there in Vietnam. Many commoners were understandably horrified and stressed about the idea of addicts re-joining society when the war ended. But, surprisingly, our aforementioned psychologist’s conclusion took a hit (pardon the pun) when 95% of returning addict soldiers simply stopped on arrival back on home soil. This led many to the belief that rather an addiction is an adaptation not a chemical hijacking of the brain. Professor of Psychology in Vancouver, Bruce Alexander explains these findings as a “profound challenge” to the idea that addiction is “moral failing caused by too much hedonistic partying”. He argues against this idea of the “rat” or you being at fault but moreover “the cage” or the environment we are in at the time. Now this, I love! WE are all different and our apple sometimes falls very close to our unfortunately rotten trees. Other times, it is getting “caught up in the wrong crowd” (I sense eye-rolling and scoffing, as I’m sure you’ve heard it before). We can find solace in what Professor Alexander went on to conclude, thanks duly to his alternative test, taking the testing environment and its variability into consideration. Now here, and mainly here, is where I start to buzz with excitement.
So, Dr. Alexander took the original test and proclaimed that the reason the rats chose, over and over again, to take in an abundance of heroin laced water was that there was nothing else to do. Put simply; there was nothing in the environment which gave the rats a natural high, engagement or purposeful and meaningful ambition, thus, they drank the ‘devil’s wine’ almost as a protest to solidarity. In short, they were bored! They had nothing inspiring to draw them away from it. How incredibly close can we link this to our society?
I mean, could you imagine being thrown into an unfamiliar place (more or less an enclosure) with no one but yourself to keep your company; with nothing more than your thoughts to keep you busy? Now that I think of it, there is a place that exists just like that…
Fun fact: in the past year, the Australian Bureau of Statistics released the number of prisoners had risen again by 3% within Australia, the vast majority of inmates convicted of addiction-related crimes. Those who steal are in need of acceptance and those who binge crave comfort because of a weird sense of FOMO or worse, they’re unappreciated and depressed. Dr. Alexander took it further. He created a utopic rat park tank to compare the previous test and his new hypothesis. This tank had spinning wheels, coloured balls, obstacle courses, cheese and, best of all, other rats! It was heaven (as far as lab rats are concerned). Incredibly, the results resoundingly contradicted the original tests suggesting the rats could not help themselves.
You see, in this rat park utopia, the rats were still given the same two water sources, but, alternatively were given different things to connect with; to keep them stimulated. Peter Cohen, a psychologist in The Netherlands supported Dr. Alexander testing, posing that instead even using the term ’addiction’, shouldn’t we just call it ‘bonding’? After all, what really is happening is a close bond taking place between the user and the feeling the drug gives us. He describes us all as, “Human beings have a natural and innate need to bond…” And, amazingly, the rat park utopia rats did not become addicted or even enjoy the water, they in fact, actually felt dissuaded from going anywhere near it. Why? They had everything they needed already; further justifying the hypothesis of the “cage” v the “rat”.
I want to now turn your attention to a place that does actually feel like it’s on another planet when it comes to this topic, but it is right here on planet earth; Portugal. Just twenty years ago, this country had a huge epidemic: 1% of its population was addicted to heroin. Johann Hari, calls this as outrageous but seeks to find the answers in the response to this. In the time before the year 2000, Portugal did what most other western countries did /do in this situation, “they punished them, stigmatised them and shamed them, and every year the problem got worse…” Eventually (the year 2000), the people in power decided to make a change. They made a decision to legalise all illicit drugs! On one condition, and this is, according to Hari, “take all the money we use to spend on cutting addicts off, on disconnecting them and spend it instead on reconnecting them with their society…”
This was done in the way of micro-loaning and job creation. The addicts, in turn, once more felt purpose, had meaning in their lives and moreover, enjoyed doing things collaboratively, making a positive impact on the community. It all starts to make some sense. That addict you know may have wanted to be a mechanic once upon a time, the goal for Portugal0 is make this increasingly distant dream a reality by offering the local repair garage an employee and pay half the wages while they’re at it. We all have that someone in our lives. This system gives addicts a reason to get out of bed in the morning. The answer is certainly inclusion, not exclusion and ridicule. It’s time to make “the rat v the cage” case a reality.
As spoken about in my introductory words, I passionately pursue building the bonds readily available to positive progression and Portugal are doing just this, on a massive scale. In classrooms and football teams I preach selflessness. I urge others to be inclusive and not to persecute for indifference and misdemeanours (often out of their control). Think about what we do on a daily basis. How much of it is driven by our own selfish needs? The biggest driver of addiction is a disconnection, in, ironically, quite possibly the most connected phase in mankind’s history. Our thirst for acceptance is strong but our appetite for value is critical. A connection must only be prioritised when we first prioritise our disconnected. A really notable quote sticks in my mind and fits perfectly to all of this. Mahatma Gandhi, an amazing human being for a myriad of reasons, none more so than his humanitarian values and his care for all members of society, fatefully stated, “The true measure of any society can be found in how it treats its most vulnerable members”. What a reflection on all of us.
So, while we sit on our pedestal and throw arrows at our weakest, continue to divulge in condescension think very closely about who you are really excluding, shaming and locking away from our own Rat Park Utopia, it may be someone closer to you than you think.
The key here is to restore a purpose, for all; so that we can reach an ideal sense of being – by no means utopic but just a sense of being and then we can truly belong. For those cynics of Portugal’s response to Rat Park Utopia, it is really inspiring. Drug use and related crime are down by 50%, addiction of all forms well down and, quite inarguably in your face, no one in society wants to return back to the old way- the way that everyone else does it- they just want their loved ones loved. Isn’t that enough to bring about change? We are the most isolated generation of human existence, it’s time to take a breath and start doing one thing. Fill your cage with colourful fun, cheese and, most important, other rats to share the goodness with. It may just end up being that perfect Rat Park Utopia we seek after all.