Much of what we know about addiction comes from tests performed on lab rats in the mid 20th century. The experiment is simple: put a rat in a tiny cage, alone, with two water bottles. One is just water, the other is water laced with cocaine. The results are almost always the same: an unsurprising 9 out of 10 rats will binge on the cocaine water until they die. The problem, of course, is that drugs are addictive, and that mere exposure to them will cause addiction. But this model didn’t sit well with a young professor of psychology named Bruce Alexander, who in the 1970s devised an experiment of his own. He wondered what would happen if he gave the rats a new environment.
So he built a new, bigger cage, which wasn’t very cage-like at all. He called it Rat Park, and it was basically Disneyland for rats – a lush enclosure with toys, tunnels, and plenty of friends to mingle and mate with. Like the rats from the first experiments, the rats in Rat Park would have two water sources, one drugged and one normal. The results this time around were surprising. In Rat Park, rats rarely used the drugged water. Instead, they engaged and played with each other. They formed a rat community.
Bruce Alexander warned about over-generalizing his findings, but he agreed that humans have a deep need to bond and connect. When we are unable to do so because we’re hurt or isolated – caged off from a community – we will bond with just about anything that offers relief or escape, be it video games, gambling, or cocaine. We’ll bond with something, because that’s our nature.
Forming healthy bonds instead of unhealthy ones is crucial to recovery – but how? The key is finding your community, a group of people organized around a common goal or set of beliefs that can lift you up. For many, it’s a 12-step fellowship or a treatment center. But communities and micro-communities can take many forms: a surf crew, a meditation group, or even a gardening co-op. Connect to people you want to be present with. What’s your Rat Park?