Julia Steiny: Schools Can Learn from Researchers’ Rat Park


By Julia Steiny

British journalist Johann Hari definitely upended my assumptions in his piece The Likely Cause of Addiction Has Been Discovered, and It Is Not What You Think.

Hari's long personal relationship with addicts and addiction started when he was only a child. He tried and failed to wake a relative who had overdosed, which was surely traumatic. So some years ago he decided to explore addiction, talking to addicts, experts, families and doctors. He captured his journey in Chasing The Scream: The First And Last Days of the War on Drugs, told mainly through the stories of those affected by drugs. I was especially struck by his story of two drug research efforts.

One experiment was famously captured in an appalling TV ad produced by the Partnership for Drug-free America in a 1980s. I remember it. We see a rat in a wire cage. A food-like pellet drops into place and the rat eats. An ominous voice tells the viewer that 9 out of 10 laboratory rats will "use" this drug, and "use it and use it," until dead. Over the course of the ad's 30 seconds, the rat compulsively eats successive pellets. It gets increasingly addicted and sick, staggering about in a pathetic stupor until overdosing. It was riveting TV from an era big on discouraging drug use with a "scared straight" approach.

As an education journalist, I studied the roots and effects of teen substance abuse. I mainly found studies explaining how repeated use of alcohol and drugs effectively carve paths of addiction synapses, permanently altering the person's brain. Hari calls this the myth of chemical hook. The chemical gains control of the person, which can happen (speaking as someone who spent years quitting cigarettes). But Hari goes on to point out that people get addicted to gambling and other behaviors, but it's not like you can mainline a pack of cards or roulette wheel. So what's going on?

Any social being left alone in a cage would welcome oblivion.

Canadian professor Bruce Alexander questioned the validity of the experiment made famous by the ad. Instead, he created a Rat Park. Also a controlled, laboratory cage, the Park was large, and filled with toys, tunnels, fun stuff to do, and most importantly, other rats. Water bottles always offered them choice of both regular and cocaine-laced water. The rats tried both, but over time greatly preferred the regular water. Self-medication seemed to be far less appealing if a rat could get high on the dopamine of mammalian social fun.

Alexander went further. He too kept some rats isolated in wire cages, and well supplied with drugs. But then he put them in his Rat Park where, after some time and twitching from withdrawal, even these confirmed addicts came to prefer regular water. Perhaps being messed up on drugs ruined their ability to have fun in the Rat Park's equivalent of capture-the-flag.

Hari's stories about human addicts resemble the Rat Park tale. (Did you know that 15 years ago 1% of Portugal's population was addicted to heroin?) People respond really well to human Rat Parks, which to my mind greatly resemble fun 1950s neighborhoods. You want kids off drugs? Give them places where they can run, swing, discover, invent, imagine, and have a blast with friends.

It's not you. It's your cage.

Your environment affects your behavior. Hari writes: "Professor Alexander argues this discovery is a profound challenge both to the right-wing view that addiction is a moral failing caused by too much hedonistic partying, and the liberal view that addiction is a disease taking place in a chemically hijacked brain. In fact, he argues, addiction is an adaptation. It's not you. It's your cage."

Our environments, Hari's "cages," are increasingly unsupportive of human connection. Whereas once everyone knew their neighbors, now such intimacy is the exception. As a nation, we're in the midst of a drug overdose crisis. The media is filled with stories of destructive and self-destructive behavior.

Isolation is especially pronounced among children, who play indoors, glued to their electronics. They've had so little experience of playing nicely with others in the sandbox, they don't develop social skills. Their young bodies are supposed to sit for hours to "learn" and then get yelled at when they simply can't behave. You'd be hard pressed to find a robust network of trusting, warm human connections in most schools. In fact, schools call human bonding "personalization," a word whose impersonality kinda says it all.

Redesigning schools to take advantage of the brain's hard-wired needs to have fun would surely lead to far better results than the command-and-control environments kids get now. At least students would have the option to choose healthy academic water instead of being drawn addictively to the endless electronic relief from disconnection and boredom. Yes, there's some truth to the "chemical hook." But it's not as deep and important a truth as the learned joys of Rat Park.

Julia Steiny
Julia Steiny is a freelance columnist writing about kids and schools through the lens of Restorative Practices and Restorative Justice. Currently she is Project Manager for a National Institute of Justice grant to study the effectiveness of restorative conferencing programs now being implemented in six Rhode Island Schools. Steiny is the founding director of the Youth Restoration Project, the design partner in the grant. After serving a term on the Providence School Board, for 16 years she wrote the Providence Journal's weekly education column. Since 1998, she has consulted with The Providence Plan on data analysis and communications, helping to develop Information Works! for the RI Department of Education and the RIDataHUB. For more, see juliasteiny.com or contact her at [email protected] The Youth Restoration Project has a Facebook page with news and resources on the Restoration movement in the US and internationally.
Julia Steiny
01 28, 2015
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