The View From The Cage

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In some of the first experiments on addiction, łab rats in cages were given the choice of two bottles to drink from, one containing heroine and one containing water. The rats chose the heroine, quickly became addicted, and usually died fairly quickly. This, along with similar experiments, was taken as evidence of the dangerous physically addictive power of drugs.

Then in the late 70s a Canadian psychologist called Bruce Alexander started thinking about how the rat felt in the cage, isolated, bored, scared, just like a human really. Is it surprising they took lots of freely available drugs? What if the rats had everything they needed? Would they still become addicted to drugs? He decided to find out and built Rat Park.

Rat Park had lots of space and lots of rats.

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The rats had fun things to do.

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Which including making more rats.

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All in all it was a fun place for a rat to be. Plus, because this was still an addiction experiment, hard drugs were freely available.

The results? Well the rats in Rat Park still took drugs, but only occasionally. They consumed far less than the rats in isolated cages and the Rat Park rats didn’t get addicted. Conclusion? Addiction is as much psychological as physical. The isolated rats in the cages took drugs and became addicted because it was their only means of escape. The rats in Rat Park didn’t need to become drug addicts, they didn’t need to escape.

One of the key things is isolation. Humans are social creatures, and although sometimes we may yearn to be left alone it’s actually not very good for us. Isolation can be physical or psychological. People with depression will often withdraw physically from the world by staying in their home, or even just not being able to get out of bed, but even worse they get trapped behind psychological barriers as well. Emotional distance is more dangerous than physical, and that’s true for drug addicts as well.

The thing is we all live in a some kind of cage, although usually it is a metaphorical cage of our own construction, and some cages are nicer than others. Mine is a very nice one, I have my family, my work, my friends and a beautiful home in the country but there are still times when I feel the need to escape, just as we all do. On reflection I think this is why I have always read so much, you can open a book and step straight out of your own world and into the story. I don’t know if there are any studies that comparing drug abuse with how much you read, maybe there should be.

As for writing, I think that’s even more of an escape. Not only do I get to escape into another world, I can make of it anything I want. Even better I get to be a different person, an author, and just for a moment try out a different life, even if deep down I know it is an illusion.

In my darkest moments I fear that my whole life is a sham. Whichever way I try to frame it I’m still in my cage, I’m just painting the bars a different colour. But these moments don’t usually last very long. In my heart I know I have everything I need. There is nothing I need to escape from, and nowhere better to escape to. If I’m happy where I am it isn’t really a cage, it’s a home.