Listen to our radio doc about Bruce Alexander and Rat Park here. You can also subscribe to the Terry Project on CiTR on iTunes to hear the whole series.
While you’re at it, check out this great comic about Rat Park by Stuart McMillen.
In the 1950s, scientists believed that drugs controlled a neurological trigger in the brain. If you took a drug like heroin your brain chemistry would be fundamentally altered–making it nearly impossible to get clean.
This has been the scientific rationale behind “Just Say No” and abstinence-based drug education programs in the United States and Canada.
The scientists based their neurological-trigger theory on experiments with lab rats. The rats were put in cages and wired up to a pump. They could press a button to self-administer opiates.
The researchers found that the rats would helplessly and compulsively press the button. It was an alarming finding.
In 1977, a professor from Simon Fraser University named Bruce Alexander set out to disprove this theory. He built a lush and ideal park for rats.
“It [had] beautiful green trees painted on the wall,” Alexander remembers. “Nice wood shavings on the floor. Little wheels to run around in if one wants. Empty tin cans to hide away in and nice corners for discussion meetings. It was pretty nice as far as rat environments go.”
And it turned out that the rats in Rat Park took a lot less opiates than caged rats.
Bruce Alexander says that the Rat Park experiments put his predecessors’ experiments in a different light. “They don’t prove that these drugs are in fact irresistible. What they prove is that they are irresistible to tortured creatures.”
Alexander has struggled to convince teachers, parents and politicians of his findings ever since.